Running the Numbers: Fannie Davis's Secret Career On Family Secrets
By Diana Brown
September 16, 2019
On the Family Secrets podcast, bestselling author Dani Shapiro has in-depth conversations with people about real secrets: “the secrets that are kept from us, the secrets we keep from others, and the secrets we keep from ourselves.” On this episode, she sits down with Bridgett M. Davis, who wrote a book about her mother called The World According To Fannie Davis. Fannie was a beautiful woman with long, dark hair who wore fancy gown-and-robe ensembles around the house, “looking lovely,” Bridgett says, “but taking care of business.” That business was the secret Bridgett and her entire family kept for decades, because Fannie was a numbers runner in Detroit in the 1960s and '70s. “All these people who loved her and had been touched by her, they weren’t really able to talk about her,” Bridgett says. “It dawned on me...Everyone was keeping the numbers secret.”
When the family moved to Detroit from Nashville, Bridgett’s father thought he’d get work in the auto factories, but became disabled and unable to work. There were six children by then; Fannie needed to figure out a way to take care of her household. The work available to black women didn’t pay much. So she needed another way. “And she didn't have to look that far actually. My mom was pretty observant,” Bridgett tells us. “She was a quick study and everywhere around her, her neighbors were playing the numbers. Betting their 50 cents, their quarter, their dollar, not a lot of money, but she saw that it was a brisk business.” “Numbers” was basically an “informal lottery system,” as Bridgett calls it, the way people played the lottery before the state took it over, and people like Fannie would collect and pay off bets based on the winning numbers.
Running numbers wasn’t the only gamble Fannie would take, either. During that time of “white flight,” plenty of white people were selling their homes to black people and fleeing to the suburbs. But thanks to “redlining,” banks wouldn’t loan money to black families to buy homes, calling their loans too risky. “What made it high risk? If one black family lived in that community, it was high risk,” Bridgett explains. “So imagine having the means, but not being able to buy a house, only because of the color of your skin. This thing that is the symbol of your American dream, that really is your foothold into the middle class.” So Fannie bought her house “on contract,” which was essentially renting with a higher risk. “It was the only thing she could do to buy a house, but there was this tremendous risk,” Dani says. “And yet, you and your siblings didn't know it...It was there somewhere, thrumming in the underbelly of it all."
A lot of Bridgett’s story has to do with tensions beneath the surface; because of white flight, the city of Detroit was going through major demographic changes, and that discord led to the race riots of 1967. Only a year later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On top of all that, she had her family's secret to keep.
She tells a story about being six years old, and her first-grade teacher noticed she had a lot of shoes, even forcing Bridgett to recite every single pair of shoes she owned. She had already asked her what her mom did for a living, so Bridgett was worried about giving the secret away. “And I managed to...recall ten pairs. That teacher said to me, ‘What? 10 pairs is an awful lot.’...I could hear that thing in her voice...disdain.” When Fannie found out, “I had never seen her get this angry.” She took Bridgett to Saks Fifth Avenue and bought her a pair of expensive yellow patent leather shoes. “That saleswoman looked at my mom the way that Ms. Miller had looked at me. My mom didn't seem to even notice.” She told Bridgett to wear the shoes to school the next day, and tell her teacher she actually had a dozen pairs of shoes. Bridgett did, and the teacher never spoke a word to her for the rest of the year. What she did, Dani asserts, was demonstrate dignity for her. “That’s it,” Bridgett says. “I knew right then that no one could tell me what I was entitled to.”
Join Dani and Bridgett to learn more about the loving, brilliant, and determined Fannie Davis, how Bridgett feels after finally telling the secret she’s kept for so long, and why she decided to write her book, on this episode of Family Secrets.
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