Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Harris, September 5, 2002. Interview R-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A father warns a son against gambling

Harris remembers "the numbers" racket. People hoped to hit the jackpot, but Harris's father warned him against playing. "The numbers game is just a poor way to make a living," Harris believes.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Harris, September 5, 2002. Interview R-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

But we had grocery stores. Most of the grocery stores in the black community on East Market Street were run by white folks.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Is that right?
JOHN HARRIS:
Come to mind the Coble Store was probably one of the better stores, kept fresh meat, but they also had little hanky panky going on, you could put your numbers in there.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So that was where the numbers was run out, huh.
JOHN HARRIS:
Yeah. Really.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Was the numbers pretty big?
JOHN HARRIS:
The numbers were real big. Most of the guys that hung out in the poolrooms, these were the guys that handled that kind of thing.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
They were running and—
JOHN HARRIS:
They were number runners.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Placing money.
JOHN HARRIS:
Yeah.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
How did that work in terms of I'd imagine somebody in the black community was kind of in charge or was—
JOHN HARRIS:
Well, but eventually you did have some people in charge, but they weren't, they were just sort of skim off the top. But the, we knew where the money came from. But now numbers were, the numbers game was really a part of the neighborhood. If you could hit a number, you could hit a number, you could win yourself a hundred dollars, two hundred dollars, a thousand dollars, five thousand dollars. If you were and you know and some people played it to that extent. My father used to tell me, he said, "Now you could hit the numbers and buy a car." He said, "But you can't depend on hitting the number to keep the payments up. So you have to be careful. You need a job."
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Don't count on it.
JOHN HARRIS:
Yeah, numbers that's something you couldn't count on. You could count on it for the big haul, but now you had people that played numbers, hit the big number, bought a car, and then when the time came to make the payment, they couldn't even make the first payment. Eventually you know what that meant. So that's repossession. So they were satisfied with that.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Maybe the point of it is just having it for that first month. Was this ultimately protected by the sheriff or was there, to what degree would the police have been in on it?
JOHN HARRIS:
Well, the police would have, it was against the law to start with. Every once in a while somebody would get busted. But who got busted, the little guy on the street corner. He's the one that got busted. They never got, they never get to the top. Nothing's changed. It's still the same way. So it's just, the numbers game is just a poor way to try to make a living. It's no way to make a living. It's just something that you do.