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May 23, 2022

The BookLife Prize describes Bullets in the Fire: The Saga of New York Red, which chronicles the life of Erma Louise Hill, as a story “of perseverance in the face of both unimaginable abuse at a young age, and the more mundane struggles of adulthood as a single parent.” We spoke with Hill’s son, Edward Roy, and discussed what the Prize called his successful embodying of “his mother’s voice by creating a consistent narrative style that illustrates her inner complexity and nuances.”

What made you decide to tell your mother’s story now?

In one word: justice. Erma Louise Hill was attacked and killed by a Mafia hit man as she escorted her four-year-old daughter home from day care. She was killed because she refused to turn over her very successful Harlem numbers business to the mob. Her assassin was never apprehended. Erma fought like hell every day to keep Harlem from consuming her children. She always kept us focused. Her favorite saying to us was “Do as I say do, not as I do, I am throwing bricks at the jail house so you won’t have to.” We made it out safely by using her prescriptions successfully. Now it’s time for her story to be told..

Why did you write Bullets in the Fire: The Saga of New York Red from her perspective?

Over my adult years, I have come to realize what an exceptional woman of African descent she was. American history is bursting with exceptional women, but not like this one. Erma figured out early in life how to take on the world and succeed. She was a math whiz and a street fighter and also the most caring person in the world. She made her own rules, and she lived by them and died by them. Known on the streets of Harlem as New York Red, this courageous single mother must tell her story of clawing her way out of poverty to become a celebrated Harlem numbers banker in her own voice.

Was your mother able to contribute to the book before she passed away?

No, she was not able to contribute to the book. She left her most prized contributions to humanity, her children, well-educated and successful enough to make their own contributions to her story.

How do you ensure your writing truthfully conveys events that happened decades ago?

I was not the only contributor to her story. On, the Hill family has more than 400 names of family members and other documents. My uncles and aunts contributed many stories over the years at family reunions. In Bullets in the Fire: The Saga of New York Red, we went to extraordinary lengths to document much of her life, from Grandpa Jack Hick’s voter registration in 1878 to Erma’s Colored School Diploma from Plains, Georgia, which she earned in 1938. Included is a host of photographs, more than 200 signatures of her customers and friends who attended her funeral, a signed letter from J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, and newspaper articles from the New York Times and Amsterdam News. In Harlem, if you make your business from the street, the street knows all your business. It would be fruitless to fib about anything.

Why do you think your book is particularly relevant now?

I believe her story of going from poverty to prosperity can inspire other single mothers in similar situations to pull themselves up and over barriers placed in their way. With an undaunted spirit derived from a family line of strong Black women, she refused to fall victim to a sexist, racist South. Erma learned early how to earn by making her own rules. She knew she had to work hard if she was to make it out of Plains, while also fighting off white rapists who thought Black women were easy pickings. She learned early how to confront abuse even if it came from home. She dealt with these situations smartly and forcefully, whether you agreed with her methods or not. Her life-changing message of intellect, strength, and financial independence must be communicated to all single mothers looking to find their way out of the pits of poverty. This will be her justice and her relevance today.