Bronzeville's policy kings were early venture capitalists

July 7, 2003 BY CURTIS LAWRENCE Staff Reporter

They were digit barons, the 1-2-3-4 guys, and "digitarians." But most people remember them as policy kings, the African-American men who proved this city could run a numbers racket long before the state's first legal lottery numbers were pulled in 1974. Starting in the late 1800s, policy kings such as John "Mushmouth" Johnson, "Policy" Sam Young and the Jones brothers became the black community's ubiquitous bankers, philanthropists, businessmen and criminals.


*Players--including doctors, priests and grandmothers--would give their numbers to a policy writer, who would jot them down in his book.
*A three-numbered bet--the most popular--was called a "gig." A two-numbered bet was a "saddle."
*Twenty-four numbered balls were drawn from a small cylinder drum--the "wheel," which held 78 numbered balls.
*Drawings were held as often as four times a day. But, if the heat from the police was on, there might only be one drawing.


"Policy kings were the biggest and about the only philanthropists in the community," said Nathan Thompson, author of the self-published book, Kings, The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers. "They were the bank that aspiring African-American businessmen and women could go to when they couldn't go downtown," he said. "They were a ready source of venture capital." A Bronzeville preservation activist, Thompson, 43, traces his interest in the policy kings back to his youth on the South Side when he and his buddies would spend time talking about their favorite gangster movies. Once he asked a friend, "How is it that we know all this stuff about the Italian mob and we don't know anything about ourselves as African Americans?" The question resurfaced about 10 years ago when Thompson, in between jobs, was reading Nicholas Lemann's The Promised Land: The Great Migration and How it Changed America. "There was one line in the book about policy wheels, and that triggered all of these memories of things I had heard old-timers talk about in the neighborhood when I was growing up," said Thompson, who hopes his 512-page effort will spark a renewal in black history and preservation. When Thompson walked into the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at Woodson Regional Library, he entered a world of wheelers and dealers who, early on, pulled numbers from hats at South Side night spots.

By the 1930s policy had grown more sophisticated and moved out of the smoke-filled clubs and into corner grocery stores and other neighborhood venues. Each policy king had his own wheel and several stations. Thompson estimates there were as many as 30 wheels operating between 1933 and 1941. A policy writer would make the rounds with his ticket book equipped with carbons to take bets from customers who would pick from 78 numbers. The odds of getting three winning numbers was 26 out of 1,000, according to Nicholas Barron, a math professor at Loyola University. Not the greatest odds, but not the worst if the game was played fairly, which wasn't assured. The Tia Juana wheel was run by the Kelley boys from 51st and Michigan. The Tia Juana may have raked in as much as $80,000 a day from four daily drawings, Thompson said. Protection payoffs to cops and politicians could range from $50 to $300. The kings lived the life of fine clothes and fancy cars. But with the white mob moving in on their action, they also lived on the edge. Policy king Walter Kelley was gunned down on Jan. 8, 1939, near 30th and Indiana at age 51.

During the good times, policy kings were the black community's bank and employer. "The economy of the black community of Chicago in the earlier part of the 20th century was so circumscribed by segregation and economic discrimination that the policy industry really generated a lot of the ready cash that flowed around in Bronzeville," said Michael Flug, senior archivist for the Harsh Collection at Woodson. In turn, the policy kings put a lot of their earnings into legitimate enterprises, such as funding writers, car dealerships and churches.

The definitive end of the kings' rule came on Aug. 4, 1952, when Theodore "Ted" Roe, who ran the Harlem Bronx with the Jones brothers, was gunned down. Aside from running a smooth operation, Roe was remembered for paying hospital bills for newborns and funerals for the dead. "We call men like Theodore Roe 'kings,'" Rev. Richard Keller eulogized. "He contributed greatly to the hopes and lives of a people." Copyright The Sun-Times Company