BLACK HISTORY IN HOT SPRINGS: The Policy Kings who came with the gangsters
This is the second of four articles to be published in The Post's Black History Month Series. A new article will publish every Tuesday in February.
The story of the gangsters who once came to Hot Springs for its thermal waters, baseball and illegal gambling is well-known to most, but have you ever heard of the Policy Kings? Nathan Thompson, author of Kings: The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers, is quite the expert on these Black men who ran the policy racket in the 1930's and 40's, as well as on their coming to Hot Springs to get away, just like the gangsters once did.
"Hot Springs was kind of a playground for the underworld, and that included the Black underworld as well," Thompson said. "And in Hot Springs the Black underworld concentrated itself on Malvern Avenue."
With all of these "underworld characters" making their way to Hot Springs at some time or another, Thompson said, "Hot Springs, Arkansas, is not unlike the rest of the nation itself in that there is a clearly defined section of Hot Springs designated for African Americans.
"In this particular case, Malvern Avenue is that designated area, which is one block over from Central Avenue where all of the white gangsters are. So you've got Black gangsters on one street, white gangsters on another street; they are literally one block apart."
And with present-day Central Avenue receiving more attention than Malvern Avenue, the same seems to have happened with the history that occurred on each street. We know the age-old stories of the gangsters, but who were these Policy Kings, and what did they do?
First, it's important to note that the annual National Brotherhood of Policy Kings was held in Hot Springs at what was the National Baptist Hotel and Sanitarium.
"They were known as Policy Kings because they were the guys that ran what was called the policy racket, and the numbers racket, and those are the things that you younger people would know as the state lottery today," Thompson said.
The policy racket was operated illegally, and its "golden days" were in the 1930's and 40's. The proceeds from the game were used for many things, but a portion of it was used for the progress of African Americans.
"When you're looking at the state of existence for Black people at this time ... coming away from the failures of the reconstruction era ... African Americans themselves focused on their own future whether the government was going to do anything along the lines of reconstruction, or not.
"So as it so happened, this particular gambling game — policy— became a very popular and useful way for African Americans to progress in this country."
Profits made by the Policy Kings were used to fund things like Black hospitals, grocery stores, insurance companies and even baseball and basketball leagues.
"We had fewer options in those days in terms of what we could do, and where we could go," Thompson said. "... When you don't have a lot of options available to you ... (and) you're trying to find some work so you can support yourself, (so) you can support your family, but because you are Black you don't have a lot of options ... one does what one must do, and that is typically the way it was approached."
The policy racket also offered employment opportunities for Black people who were certified bookkeepers and accountants, but were unable to get a job anywhere else utilizing those skills.
"So when you look at the progress of African Americans in this nation, part of this progress in the first half of last century was centered around the policy and numbers games as a tool for financial gain to be used for the advancement and progress of the Black race in America," Thompson said. "And it worked. And it's not unlike anything the Italians or the Irish or Germans or ... anybody and everybody else did.
"Because every ethnic group on the planet has its own people that they don't talk about. .... So it's nothing unique going on in the Black community compared to anybody else when it comes to deriving revenue to be used for progress. That's how this nation was built."