The Forgotten History of Black Prohibitionism

So little. Harper was already a well-known moderation / women’s rights / black rights activist when Frances Willard – president of the influential Union for Christian Temperance of Women – reached out to Harper to be the national superintendent of the WCTU department for “Work among colored people. “Harper enthusiastically agreed. The WCTU was rooted in the non-violent pickets of salons in the upper Midwest from 1873 to 1874 and introduced an entire generation of American women into political activism, initially in the north but soon spread nationwide. Temperance organizations of all kinds found it difficult in the generation after the civil war to set up chapters in the former confederation, so deep were the political wounds in the north / south, the hostility and mutual suspicion. But between Willard’s annual tours of the southern states and Harper’s grassroots activism, the WCTU helped heal those wounds.

Harper was hardly alone when he joined the WCTU. “Black women saw the WCTU as an opportunity to build a Christian community that could serve as a model for interracial collaboration on other fronts,” claims historian Glenda Gilmore in Gender and Jim Crow. With a focus on “Doing Everything”, WCTU has promoted interracial collaboration on anti-lynch laws, education and anti-illiteracy programs that have benefited both black and white communities. “The WCTU was a place where women might see the skin color of the past in order to recognize the humanity of the other.” 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.”

Reconstruction South was a hotbed of intersectional activism long before the term was coined.

Nevertheless, the struggle for racial equality also took place within the organization. When black women complained about discrimination by the predominantly white WCTU in Georgia, they applied to Harper for a separate, separate chapter in which African American women could organize themselves freely. Harper and Willard agreed. Soon black WCTU chapters were organized in states in the south.

Despite these organizational tensions, the WCTU – and the moderation movement in general – were engines of progressive reform, reconciliation, and civil liberties: they called for liberation from unjust political and economic subordination. In the 1880s, as violence and lynchings ended rebuilding and the Jim Crow era began, forbidden rallies announced that everyone was welcome, regardless of skin color. Black-and-white temperance spokesmen shared the same stage and applauded each other despite organizational separation 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 basic rules of human equality and the need to elevate oppressed communities. “In all these ways,” the historian Edward L. Ayers concludes 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 or the passage of the Volstead Act in 1920. It actually came a decade earlier when a “dry wave” of prohibition swept Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi into Alabama from 1907 to 1910, Georgia and North Carolina. Nor was it imposed from above – by the federal government or the whites at Jim Crow South – but it was born out of real grassroots collaboration.

If black temperance is a largely ignored chapter in American history, the explanation of southern prohibitionism is a double conundrum to historians. Shouldn’t we be counting on the triumph of the ban in the north, where every city and town has several chapters on moderation, and not in the south, where activists – including the WCTU – have admitted difficulties in gaining an organizational foothold?

The usual answer from historians is to resort to the same discredited colonizers’ discourse about alcohol: Chalk South Prohibition of Ku Klux Klan and white racistsfor fear of black drunkenness, with the intention of “DisciplineAfrican American.

While it makes sense for the KKK and white supremacists to stick to an alcohol-supremacist alcohol discourse, that doesn’t mean that modern historians should do the same. especially since it doesn’t hold water. On the one hand the modern KKK surfaced in 1915, making it unlikely that it had caused a ban in 1908. Second, the point of the ban was to oppose the predatory alcohol trafficwhich was predominantly in wealthy white hands while its victims were poor whites and poor blacks. If the goal was really to keep African Americans in check and ensure white dominance, then no better system could have been developed than the already existing unregulated limo business.

Third, by simply accusing the Klan, historians fall into the same trap of disempowering black activism: they portray African Americans as passive objects subject to the whims of white actors, rather than legitimate actors. Since the era of reconstruction in the South – and even generations earlier in Antebellum North – black churches and temperance activists had clearly, consistently, and loudly articulated that alcohol was submission, and that the path to freedom and community exaltation meant curbing predatory alcohol traffic through prohibition.

A better explanation for the “dry wave” that hit the south from 1907 to 1910 would be to point out that the “wet” forces of the south were far weaker, more geographically dispersed, and far less organized than the well-anchored brewing and armed forces Distillation trusts from the north and were therefore less able to defend themselves against the activism of the unified community. In the one-party Democratic South, too, alcohol interests have had fewer opportunities to flex their political muscles by throwing their financial weight behind rival political parties or candidates who are more willing to defend their interests. At least the inclusion of political and economic factors rather than just cultural factors gives us a far better sense of the prohibition dynamic in the South, which was quite obvious to the political actors of the time.

After Georgia dry dialed in 1908, journalist Frank Foxcroft was from the Atlantic Monthly explained for its predominantly Nordic readership that the racial dynamics “only partially explains the prohibition movement of the south. It is a notable fact that during the debate in the Georgian legislature over the pending Prohibition Act, negroes were not even cited as the reason for passing the ban. Instead, he noted that both white and black communities were intoxicated, while white and black communities were against it and were awakened by “the most able and far-sighted leaders of southern opinion”, both white and black.

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