Families have secrets, details that even young children realize must be kept quiet. In that way, growing up in Detroit during the 1960s and ’70s, Bridgett Davis’ family was like everyone else’s. She knew some things remained within the family. Her mother, Fannie Davis, made that clear.
The Davis family’s secret was the means that allowed them to rise into the black middle class, buffering them from some of the harshest experiences of that era. But it was also a threat that hung over them each day.
Fannie Davis was a successful numbers runner. For much of her life, she had conducted a profitable if illegal gambling operation that functioned as part of a network in Detroit at that time. And she was one of the very few women to do so.
Her daughter, Bridgett Davis, is now a college professor who lives with her own family in Brooklyn, New York. The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers is her family’s story, one that took decades for her to feel comfortable enough to tell. To do so, after all, would break her promise to keep their secret.
Yet she saw a larger story here that needed to be told: that of a remarkably successful businesswoman who overcame racial prejudice and the limited opportunities available to women. Fannie Davis had thrived despite the obstacles.
The daughter wrestled with her decision to write the book that might open her family to criticism. What eased her concerns, she writes, was the realization that many American tales started with someone who operated outside the law to provide for their families, including figures such as Joseph P. Kennedy with his early bootleg operation.
While Fannie Davis shines as the central figure, and deservedly so, the Davis family story reads like a chapter of the American experience. But theirs is a story usually left out of history books or glossed over with little attention paid to the lives of the people who lived these experiences. This book corrects that omission.
We learn that Bridgett Davis’ parents were part of the Great Migration, the influx of Southern black citizens to the northern cities in search of economic opportunities. She describes her mother as “a colored girl from a good working-class family” who had married her childhood sweetheart. The two fled Jim Crow-era Nashville, Tennessee, for the promise of jobs in the thriving auto industry.
It was a short-lived promise. Only a few years after their arrival, Detroit’s economy tanked. The city struggled against white flight and simmering racial tensions. Heavy-handed police raids against black-owned businesses and cross-burnings on the front lawns of African-American activists eventually erupted into days of race riots that altered the city.
In the midst of this tumult, Fannie Davis was driven by a mother’s love as well as a deep conviction that her children deserved opportunities as good as those readily available to white children. Refusing to leave them home alone while she worked a low-paying job, likely in the home of a white family, Fannie parlayed her knack for numbers, her keen business sense, as well as charisma, tenacity, and courage, into a successful business.
Her mother’s financial success provided them with stability and allowed Davis and her siblings to live in a neighborhood with quality public schools. She doesn’t hide nor does she even gloss over the fact that her mother’s business was illegal. But she does provide context and motivation, illustrating how her mother’s choices were in reaction to events and sometimes despite them.
A graduate of Spelman College and Columbia Journalism School, Davis did her research. Backed up with pages of source notes, she imparts the relevant history of race relations as well as the role lotteries have played throughout American history, both state-sanctioned operations as well as those in the shadows. She tells of times when lotteries were legal and times when they were not and some of the societal forces that drove the changes.
Davis weaves her family’s story into the larger picture of America, from gambling during the Colonial era to the racial discrimination that was ingrained in law. For readers who crave the richer, fuller history of America than is usually imparted by school books, Davis emerges as a valuable and needed voice.
But mostly her book stands as a loving tribute to a remarkable woman, her mother.