As a young, Black Bridgett M. Davis and her mother, Fannie, were shopping at a luxury department store in the 1970s, a white saleswoman pointed them towards the sales rack. In typical Fannie fashion, she confronted the woman: “Did I ask you what was on the sales rack?” Upon checking out, she showed off the many luxury credit cards she kept in her Louis Vuitton wallet.

Image courtesy of Little, Brown & Company.

At its core, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers is a gripping love letter to Bridgett’s (pronounced Bridge-Jet) late mother. Bridgett gives us a glimpse into her “unapologetically good life” with her superforce of a mother, a woman who worked tirelessly to provide her children—and herself—with a life filled with love, support and, of course, Hermés scarves. Part memoir and part social history, the book is a testament to the lasting power of great parenting, and the tenuous impact of generational wealth that the U.S. tries to stop Black families from building.

While it might not be a “typical” Detroit narrative, Fannie’s world cannot be viewed as separate from the Detroit in which she raised her family: the Detroit that embraced redlining and low-wage jobs, and the Detroit that experienced rising racial tensions culminating in a riot in 1967. In 1940, 90.4% of Detroit’s population was white. By the 80s, Bridgett describes Detroit as a “63 percent black-majority city suffering from an inadequate tax base, too few jobs, and swollen welfare rolls.”

Fannie felt the impact of a declining Detroit. In the 80s, three of Bridgett’s siblings died—one shot by a man after a bar argument, one shot by her abusive husband after asking for a divorce and the third from a heart attack. Fannie’s stability and wealth did not make the Davis family immune from Detroit’s ills, but “she was still present for those of us who remained.”

Although it chronicles the descent of Detroit beyond Fannie’s door (and even the times its effects crept in), it’s hard to put down The World According to Fannie Davis because her world is one that anyone would want to live in—one filled with strength, generosity and beautiful things. Bridgett makes it easy to imagine Fannie’s blue living room in her house on Broadstreet, neighboring Diana Ross. Fannie’s many quips like, “If you do good, you attract good,” ring off the page.

Bridgett and Fannie Davis, Spelman Graduation 1982. Image courtesy of CUNY. 

But we quickly find out that Bridgett’s tribute to her mom was not so simple to write.The book is Bridgett’s balancing act between honoring her mother and betraying her biggest secret: Fannie’s economic success and the sanctuary it created for them was built upon an illegal business.

In the mid-fifties, Fannie and John Davis relocated to Detroit, Michigan from Jim-Crow-era Nashville. The Numbers business in Detroit had reached its stride. Mostly run by Black “bankers,” people would call or meet Numbers runners to bet small sums on a three-digit number with a 500-to-one return if their number “hit” that day. 

After hitting big and borrowing $100 from her brother, Fannie started her own underground Numbers business. For the most part, her business thrived and, with it, her family. But however secure life seemed in the Davis household, Bridgett’s memoir exposes the cracks in the structure—the fragility of Black wealth and mobility in late-20th century Detroit. Her family’s business was precariously perched on the edge of the law, poised to fall the moment it was found out. 

The illegality of the Numbers in Detroit wasn’t a coincidence, but rather a deliberate move by the government to hurt Black businesses—illicit and legitimate alike—as in the case of the Gotham Hotel, which was raided by police in 1962 for hosting a Numbers operation. 

The Gotham Hotel, one of the most successful black-owned businesses in Detroit was raided by police in 1962 for being a headquarter of the Numbers in Detroit. Image courtesy of Historic Detroit.

But once the government saw the profits the lottery put into Black pockets, they reclaimed the operation as a legal daily lottery. Unfortunately, this story wasn’t atypical for Fannie or other Black citizens of Detroit at the time, who were taken advantage of through both official and unofficial means; redlining, post industrialization and white flight set the backdrop for Fannie’s and many others’ lives, making her success all the more astonishing. 

For example, when searching for her first home, Detroit banks would not offer Fannie a housing mortgage. Redlining, the legal process of drawing a red line on maps around communities that housed Black people and labeling them “high risk” for Federal Housing Association (FHA) insured mortgages, meant that bankers could easily refuse loans to Black families. 

To buy their home, the Davis family had to put their trust in a white seller, Mr. Prince, and an acquaintance who bought it on their behalf because Prince wouldn’t sell to them directly. Through what is known as buying “on contract,” they could lose all of their previous payments, without building equity in the home, at any moment.

The Davis family weren’t the only ones; cities around the country kept Black families from owning homes. One estimate says that about 85% of Black homeowners in Chicago bought on contract in the mid-20th century. Writer and journalist Ta Nehisi Coates explained the disparity in a 2014 article for the Atlantic: “In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.”

Without building equity in homes, the wealth gap between Blacks and whites has widened even while the income gap has remained the same.

“The maps became self-fulfilling prophesies, as “hazardous” neighborhoods — “redlined” ones — were starved of investment and deteriorated further in ways that most likely also fed white flight and rising racial segregation,” wrote Emily Badger in a 2017 article for the New York Times.

Today, more than 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, racial discrimination persists in loan decisions. Michigan Radio NPR reports, “In Detroit, black loan applicants in 2016 were 1.8 times more likely to be denied a loan than their non-Hispanic, white counterparts. In Lansing, the odds are even bleaker for black applicants, who were more than three times as likely to face denial,” even when controlled for income, neighborhood and loan amount.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that “differences in the level of racial segregation, homeownership rates, home values and credit scores were still apparent where [red lines] were drawn.”

A 1939 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “Residential Security Map” of Chicago shows discrimination against low-income and minority neighborhoods. The residents of the areas marked in red (representing “hazardous” real-estate markets) were denied FHA-backed mortgages. Map development by Frankie Dintino, courtesy of the Atlantic.

The World According to Fannie Davis likewise tackles issues of unemployment; while Fannie built a lucrative underground business, her husband worked in dangerous, low-paying jobs at GM’s auto plant. Even that work was unstable; many industries had already started building factories abroad and replacing workers with technology. 

While post industrialization hit all Midwesterners hard, Black men, who were usually newer and in low-wage jobs, were often the first to go. And by 1966, Davis says unemployment for young Black men in Detroit reached 25-30%. The city lost over 140,000 manufacturing jobs between 1947 and 1963 alone. Unemployment, especially among the Black population, remains an issue today; in 2018, Detroit, now almost 80% Black, had the worst unemployment rate out of 50 major U.S.cities at 8.9%.

Significant loss of jobs combined with redlining and white flight led to poverty and the depletion of city resources. In the 1970s, Bridgett witnessed Detroit’s continued descent into violence, turning from the “Motor Capital” to the “Murder Capital” of the U.S. Bridgett “felt this pervasive sense of danger ever lurking, confirmed by gruesome local news reports.” 

Detroit is somewhat of an antagonist in Davis’ memoir. The tension in Detroit paired with dwindling job opportunities meant that Bridgett, along with countless young people, took the first opportunity they saw to leave Midwestern cities. From 1970 to 2006, Detroit’s population fell by 40% and has continued to plummet. She writes, “I never felt I could fully relax or feel truly safe in Detroit, and I was ready to say goodbye to all that.”

Despite leaving, Bridgett never forgets her roots; she knows that everything she has comes from the foresight of her parents and their parents before them. She traces the lines between redlining and her own generation’s ability to own property, between the precariousness of auto jobs and the “brain drain” from the Midwest. Davis never lets us forget that the past is always with us and the many restrictions placed on Black Midwesterners in the 1900s has deeply affected the Black American experience today. 

Despite the many challenges that Black families were facing during her childhood, Davis’ memoir pulls back the curtain on stable and successful working-class Black families, a narrative that Davis feels has “disappeared from public consciousness.” While discriminatory policies and unfair practices have persisted throughout generations until today, Bridgett and Fannie remind us of the stubborn persistence and exceptional love that were also passed down within the families affected by those very circumstances.

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