Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Forgotten History of Black Prohibitionism

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So F.E.W. Harper was already a well-known temperance/women’s rights/Black rights activist in her own right when Frances Willard—president of the influential Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—approached Harper to become national superintendent of the WCTU’s division for “Work Among the Colored People.” Harper enthusiastically agreed. Rooted in the nonviolent picketing of saloons across the upper Midwest in 1873-74, the WCTU introduced an entire generation of American women to political activism, first in the North, but soon spreading nationwide. Temperance organizations of all stripes had a difficult time establishing chapters in the former Confederacy in the generation after the Civil War, so deep were the North/South political wounds, animosity and mutual suspicions. But between Willard’s annual tours through the Southern states, and Harper’s grassroots activism, the WCTU helped begin to heal those wounds.

Harper was hardly alone in joining the WCTU. “Black women saw in the WCTU a chance to build a Christian community that could serve as a model of interracial cooperation on other fronts,” claims historian Glenda Gilmore in Gender and Jim Crow. With its “Do Everything” focus, the WCTU advanced interracial cooperation on anti-lynching laws, educational uplift and anti-illiteracy programs that benefited both Black and white communities. “The WCTU represented a place where women might see past skin color to recognize each other’s humanity.” It also gave many women, Black and white, their first taste of political activism. In the words of one Mississippi activist, the WCTU was “the generous liberator, the joyous iconoclast, the discoverer, the developer of Southern women.”

The Reconstruction South was a hotbed of intersectional activism, long before that term was coined.

Still, the battle for racial equality took place even within the organization. When Black women complained of discrimination from the predominantly white Georgia WCTU, they petitioned Harper for their own, separate chapter, where African American women were free to organize themselves. Harper and Willard agreed. Soon, Black WCTU chapters were organized in states across the South.

Despite such organizational tensions, the WCTU—and the temperance movement more generally—were engines of progressive reform, reconciliation and civil liberties: demanding liberation from unjust political and economic subordination. In the 1880s, even as violence and lynchings ended Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era began, prohibitionist rallies made the point of announcing that all were welcome to attend, regardless of color. Black and white temperance speakers shared the same stage and applauded each other’s accomplishments despite organizational segregation, as Black voters were courted by white politicians. Such interracial bridges were reinforced by religious and class sympathies. Those who took all of Christ’s teachings seriously recognized both the fundamental precepts of human equality, and the need to uplift downtrodden communities. “In all these ways,” concludes historian Edward L. Ayers in his Promise of the New South (2007), “the prohibitionists forged relatively open and democratic—if temporary—racial coalitions.”

The Challenge of Black Temperance

For most of the American South, prohibition did not come with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, nor the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1920. It actually came a decade earlier, as from 1907 to 1910, a “dry wave” of prohibitionism swept from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi to Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina. Nor was prohibition imposed from above—from the federal government or whites in the Jim Crow South—but rather emerged from genuine biracial grassroots cooperation.

If Black temperance is a largely ignored chapter in American history, explaining Southern prohibitionism presents a double conundrum for historians. After all, shouldn’t we expect prohibition’s triumph in the North, where every city and town could boast of multiple temperance chapters, rather than the South, where activists—including the WCTU—admitted difficulty establishing an organizational foothold?

Historians’ usual answer is to fall back on the same, discredited colonizer’s discourse about alcohol: chalking-up Southern prohibition to the Ku Klux Klan and white racists, fearful of Black drunkenness, intent on “disciplining” African Americans.

While it makes sense that the KKK and white supremacists would hold fast to a white-supremacist alcohol discourse, that doesn’t mean modern historians should, too; especially since it doesn’t hold water. For one, the modern KKK emerged in 1915, making it unlikely to have caused prohibition in 1908. Second, the whole point of prohibitionism was to oppose the predatory liquor traffic, which was overwhelmingly in affluent white hands, while its victims were poor whites and poor Blacks alike. If the goal was really to keep African Americans down and ensure white dominance, no better system could’ve been devised than the unregulated saloon business that already existed.

Third, by simply blaming the Klan, historians fall into the same trap of disempowering Black activism: portraying African Americans as passive objects, subject to the whims of white actors, rather than legitimate actors in their own right. From the Reconstruction era in the South—and even generations before that in the antebellum North—Black churches and temperance activists had clearly, consistently and loudly articulated that liquor was subjugation, and that the route to freedom and community uplift meant reining in the predatory liquor traffic through prohibition.

A better explanation for the “dry wave” that swept the South from 1907 to 1910 would be to point out that Southern “wet” forces were far weaker, more dispersed geographically, and far less organized than the well-entrenched brewing and distilling trusts of the North, and were therefore less able to defend against united community activism. Also, in the Democrats’ one-party South, liquor interests had less opportunity to flex their political muscle by throwing their financial weight behind rival political parties or candidates more willing to defend their interests. At the very least, incorporating political and economic factors rather than just cultural ones gives us a far better sense of those prohibition dynamics across the South, which were quite obvious to the political players of the day.

After Georgia voted itself dry in 1908, journalist Frank Foxcroft of the Atlantic Monthly explained for his predominantly Northern readership that racial dynamics “furnishes only a partial explanation of the prohibition movement of the south. It is a noticeable fact that, during the debate in the Georgia legislature upon the pending prohibitory bill, the negro was not once mentioned as a reason for the enactment of prohibition.” Instead, he noted that liquor-traffic predations were suffered both by white communities and Black, and were opposed by white communities and Black, and were being roused by “the ablest and most far-sighted leaders of Southern opinion,” both white and Black.

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