A Prize for “Playing the Numbers”

Our book, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars, won the General History Prize at the 2011 NSW Premier’s History Awards.

The prize citation read:

Telling the story of New York’s gaming underworld in the first half of the last century, this is a brilliant work of recuperative cultural history. It has taken a forgotten aspect of New York gambling history, contemptuously dismissed as ‘nigger pool’, to recreate a complete social underworld – a dynamic, insouciant Black American cultural and urban topography of the streets.

Gambling a few pennies or shillings on numbers was the black economy of the interwar years; it enabled some black people to make themselves millionaires, and many more ordinary black folk to ease the psychic pains of the worst economic depression in history.  The success of the numbers system meant, too, that they had to fight to defend their business from being taken over by white racketeers using political influence and the machinery of violence.  Digging into forgotten archives the authors have recovered the lost worlds of the poor, the fugitive, the illiterate and the criminal.  This is a work of scholarship that conveys the excitement and flair of a thriller.  It tells a wholly original story based on research that has long been though impossible to find.

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