SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Fannie Drumwright Davis Robinson was an esteemed civic figure in Detroit. She was married to her teenage sweetheart, came up from the segregated South, lived in a fine red-brick colonial house where she cared and cared well for their five children, had a playroom with toys from FAO Schwarz in their basement. Fannie Davis, stay-at-home mother, also ran a numbers racket from her dining room table, an underground gambling operation that collected bets and paid out winners on the right three-digit numbers. Of course, the numbers game was illegal, but Fannie Davis was known for running an honest illegal game.
Bridgett M. Davis, the novelist and filmmaker, has written a memoir of a remarkable character who happened to be her mother - "The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life For The Detroit Numbers." Bridgett M. Davis joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
BRIDGETT M DAVIS: It's great to be here.
SIMON: So (laughter) you would hear your mother doing business over your Frosted Flakes, I gather.
DAVIS: Every morning.
SIMON: (Laughter) Well, what was that like?
DAVIS: It was my normal. And, in fact, I found great comfort in the sort of recitation of numbers that she would actually basically be saying over the telephone as she took her customers' bets. I liked the sound of it.
SIMON: So how and why did your mother enter the numbers business?
DAVIS: My mom entered the numbers business out of necessity. She had migrated with my dad and three oldest children to Detroit in the mid-'50s. And my father found it very difficult to get and keep work in the auto plant in the auto factories in the city. And that's for several reasons. There were discriminatory practices in the auto factories against black men who had migrated there to get work. Lots of things were going on. And my mother just took stock of the situation and realized she really had to make a way out of no way.
And she approached my uncle, her brother John, who had a really good, steady job at the racetrack in Detroit. He was actually an exerciser, a horse exerciser, and he went on to be a trainer. So he had steady money, and she showed up one night, as he says, woke him up and everything and said, listen; I want to bank the numbers. I think I can do this. Do you have $100 that you can loan me? He said, OK, I'll do it.
DAVIS: And that started her business.
SIMON: And we should explain the numbers were derived from the Daily Racing Form.
DAVIS: Yes, they were, yes. Back then, it was a very convoluted system that apparently only my mother knew how to figure out amongst the family members. But that was how they did it. They came up with three different digits every day.
SIMON: Your mother sounds like she was quite brilliant with numbers.
DAVIS: My mom was brilliant. She was. She had - as they used to say, she had a way with numbers (laughter).
SIMON: As you grew up, how did you handle your love and pride for your mother with the need for secrecy? It's not like you could say, boy, you ought to see my mom do this.
DAVIS: You have really captured the heart of my dilemma my entire life. Imagine being that proud of your mom and not being able to brag about her. But it was a legitimate business that just happened to be illegal.
SIMON: (Laughter) Well - and so widely accepted. I mean, it, if I might put it this way, inspired many states, including the state of Michigan, to begin their own lottery.
DAVIS: Oh, that's a nice word, inspired (laughter). I would say they usurped it.
SIMON: And how did it affect your mother's business?
DAVIS: Well, it was sort of affected in stages. What a lot of people don't know is that originally when the lottery was made legal in states like Michigan, it was a weekly drawing. Once a week, you could have a chance to win. You didn't get to pick your numbers. And that was not direct competition with the numbers, which was a daily operation in which people were betting on these three digits that they got to choose.
SIMON: Yeah. So they could do birthdays. They could do lucky numbers.
DAVIS: Oh, there are so many numbers in the world that you can bet on. It's in...
DAVIS: Exactly, 313, Detroit's area code, my favorite because 313 in the "Three Wise Men Dream Book" plays for the word joy.
SIMON: So the state of Michigan did not immediately run your mother out of business, did they?
DAVIS: No. It took five years before the state lottery commission finally got around to its real point, which was to be direct competition with the underground numbers operation. And so that is when they introduce the daily.
SIMON: So that gave immediate rewards and...
DAVIS: Yeah, immediate payoffs, 500-to-1 payout. People got to choose their numbers. They adopted slogans in their ads that came right out of the black community. It was pretty whole cloth sort of a grab of the system that was already in place.
SIMON: I love towards the end of the book when you not only talk about the ways your mother inspired you emotionally, intellectually, her character, her acumen, but materially, you benefit from it today, don't you?
DAVIS: How about that? Yes. And believe me, I've never been more appreciative. Essentially without my realizing it, my mother was providing me with generational wealth. And it had a direct consequence in my life all the way up to now. Thanks to property that my mom bought using money from the numbers, I was able to take that property that I inherited, sell it and use it to invest in a co-op in New York City in Brooklyn. And that led to what I call - every Brooklynite's sort of American dream is to have a brownstone where you can rent out the ground level.
SIMON: And that's your mom.
DAVIS: That's my mom, all the way.
SIMON: Yeah. Bridgett M. Davis - her book, "The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life In The Detroit Numbers" - thanks so much for being with us.
DAVIS: Thank you for having me.
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