Make Black History Personal: #17 Grandma’s Dream Book and the Numbers

When my sister and I were young girls, we would get to spend the weekend with our paternal grandmother who lived in Hamtramck, Michigan. Hamtramck is a small city surrounded by Detroit that grew up around the auto factories.

My grandmother in about 1925.
My grandmother in about 1925.

Funny, I remember Grandma’s house on Grand Haven Street like it was yesterday –

  • The big console TV sitting in the living room with the stuffed pheasant on the top that Grandpa had shot
  • The polished dining room table where we sat for Sunday dinner
  • Grandpa’s gun rack sitting in the hallway (complete with his collection of shotguns and rifles)
  • Always something that smelled great cooking in the kitchen and
  • Grandma’s little red dream book on the side board.
A vintage dreambook.
A vintage dreambook.

I always wondered what a “dream book” was. Grandma explained it was how she picked her –


My grandmother would look up a word or phrase to define her dream. Then she would pick the corresponding number and that’s the number she would play. Here’s a sample page from a dream book:

Numbers from a dream book.
Numbers from a dream book.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned the numbers or “policy”, as they were also called, was actually an illegal lottery. It was a form of gambling in the Black community that was popular from the late 1890s to the 1960s.

The game is played by players betting on a series of three numbers from 0 to 999. Numbers runners would collect the money from the bettors each day, leave each bettor a receipt from what was called a policy book, and then take the cash and policy book to the clearing house, also known as a policy bank.

A player would win if his/her numbers matched a preset series of three numbers, which were found in daily newspapers as the last three digits of either the NYSE total, U.S. Treasury balance, or total bets at a selected racetrack. The numbers game seldom favored the players because the results were often fixed.

A policy or number bet.
A policy or number bet. Source:

Sounds like a mom and pop business right? It wasn’t. The Black people who were in charge of the policy rackets in various cities, like Harlem, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago became multi-millionaires. As the Mafia realized how much money was being made, they tried to push Blacks out and run policy themselves.

For the average person in the community, like my grandmother, though, the numbers game was not big business. It was a little gamble – risking a few cents for the chance to make a dream of a better life come true. Some won and most didn’t.

Here’s a popular song for the many policy game losers called the “Policy Blues” that was recorded in 1939 by a blues singer name Blind Blake –

I never asked Grandma if the little red dream book worked for her. But I do know that she lived to be 97 years old and enjoyed living her later years surrounded by the people she loved and who loved her back. Knowing my grandmother, I’m betting that was the dream of a lifetime for her.

And how do you put a number on that?

How can you make Black history personal? 

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2 responses to Make Black History Personal: #17 Grandma’s Dream Book and the Numbers

    • Karen says:


      Thanks for stopping by to read about the “numbers”. On that rare occasion when I buy a lottery ticket, I think about Grandma’s dream book.


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