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What was Policy?

Policy was an illegal gambling game played in urban African-American communities from the late 1800s to the 1970s. A bettor guessed a number, or a series of numbers, and made his bets to a local policy writer (also called a numbers runner). Winning numbers were randomly selected at drawings held throughout the neighborhood. In Bronzeville, Chicago's black community, several policy games ran at any given time, with winning numbers drawn up to four times daily. The winning numbers were printed and distributed on thousands of individual slips of paper (known as "policy slips"), as well as in neighborhood newspapers.

Part of the appeal of policy was that bets could be made for as little as a penny or a nickel, making it accessible to almost everyone. Depending on how many numbers a bettor played, payoffs for a dime bet could range from as low as fifty cents (for a single number guessed correctly) to $200 (for five numbers guessed correctly). The most common bet was for three numbers, called a "gig."

Policy Kings
John V. "Mushmouth" Johnson, Chicago Policy King
The Policy Racket

The policy racket was originally controlled by African-Americans, who became known as the policy kings (and queens—a few women ran numbers games, too). But by the 1930s, white gangsters had taken over the racket in all major Northern cities except one—Chicago. In Chicago, the policy kings formed a syndicate that successfully fought off takeover by white organized crime for over 20 years. That kept control of the racket in the African-American community. And where the control was, so were the profits.

And speaking of profits...

By 1938, Chicago policy was taking in eighteen million dollars a year (at a time when 70% of Chicago's African-American families earned less than $1,000 per year). Out of that eighteen million, the policy kings kept about half. (The rest went to pay employees' salaries, as well as pay off the winning bets, the police, and politicians.) The policy kings drove the finest cars, wore the most expensive clothes, owned summer homes and private airplanes, and vacationed in Europe and Mexico.

In other cities, policy created a stream of wealth that ran one direction only: out of black neighborhoods and into the pockets of white mobsters. In Chicago, though, the policy kings gave back. At its height, the racket provided 5000 jobs to the African-American community. In addition, the policy kings invested in many legitimate businesses in the neighborhood, from grocery stores to hotels to one of the first black-owned department stores in the country. The kings made substantial and ongoing contributions to neighborhood charities, churches, and hospitals. They helped black professionals set up their practices and supported promising students through school.

Critics of Policy

Despite this philanthropy, the policy racket had plenty of critics within the African-American community. Gambling was considered a vice, and it was loudly condemned by church leaders and others. Many people objected to money being gambled away that should have gone to food, clothing, or better housing. Some felt that policy weakened the work ethic, by making people believe they could "get something for nothing."

Policy Comes to an End

Policy Kings Moral objections or not, policy steamrolled along. After World War II, the income from policy games tripled. The Chicago policy kings fought off many takeover attempts, but finally, in the 1950s, white organized crime succeeded in muscling in. The era of the policy kings was over. The policy racket itself didn't last much longer. In 1974, the Illinois State Lottery was born. Policy had, in effect, become legal, and the old-style system of numbers runners and policy slips soon sank into oblivion.

For more information:

Kings: The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers, An Informal History, Nathan Thompson, Bronzeville Press, 2002.

Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, St. Clair Drake and Horace A. Cayton, University of Chicago Press, 1945.

African-American Organized Crime: A Social History, Rufus Schatzberg and Robert J. Kelley, Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Oxford University Press, 2005.

Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime, Francis A. J. Ianni, New English Library, 1974.

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