African American Agency and (Anti-)Prohibition

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Brendan Payne, a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. History at Baylor University finishing his dissertation, “Cup of Salvation: Race, Religion, and (Anti-)Prohibition in Texas, 1885-1935.” Enjoy!

It is no secret that African Americans have received modest scholarly attention when it comes to alcohol prohibition. Some historians have gone so far as to omit African Americans from a significant role in the issue altogether. In his 2010 book Jesus and Gin, Barry Hankins argued that African Americans “either took a pass or were not allowed to participate” on a white culture war issue such as prohibition due to their social marginalization and legally enforced segregation (p. 170). It is true that African Americans were often barred from full political engagement on the issue, especially during his focus on the 1920s, yet many works on prohibition have managed to incorporate African Americans. Most of these works have treated them as peripheral to the narrative, usually either as victims of a prohibition movement arrayed against them or as followers of reformist whites seeking racial uplift through mutual striving. One recent example of the latter perspective is Robert Wuthnow’s 2015 study of religion and politics in Texas, Rough Country. He described prohibition as a policy “of special interest to white churches” and reduced African American ministers’ support for the reform as reactive to white initiative (p. 171). While some attention on prohibition is better than none, such marginal treatment can have the effect of stripping African Americans in the past of their agency, essentially framing them as pawns in a white man’s (and woman’s) game.

It would be unfair, however, to attribute this (lack of) treatment of African Americans in prohibition to a malicious intent to whitewash history; a more likely culprit is a benign neglect stemming from preoccupation with other issues. After all, most prominent leaders both for and against prohibition were white. Yet in the past as in the present, black lives matter, especially when their voices have not been heard on a culture war issue such as prohibition. Several obvious obstacles stand in the way of well-intentioned scholars of prohibition who want to include the stories of African Americans in their work.

Stirring and Significant EpisodePerhaps largest problem facing scholars of prohibition who wish to pay their respects to African Americans is the lack of sources, both primary and secondary. For example, African American church records are far scarcer than those of their white counterparts, who have been wealthier and better able to preserve their records in well-funded archives. The inequality in resources created an even wider gulf in available sources, leading some scholars to shrug that the task of recovering African American stories is either too difficult or impossible. Even scholars focused upon African American history have found little motivation to study prohibition, which is not a focus of the relatively few sources that have survived on the topic. A notable exception to such resignation is H. Paul Thompson, Jr., whose 2014 book A Most Stirring and Significant Episode (reviewed by Points here) focused on the central roles of religious networks and African Americans in Atlanta’s prohibition contests in the 1880s.

Another issue with studying African Americans and prohibition is the search for a usable past. In my field of history, many study the past for reasons beyond mere antiquarian interest: they seek past examples that implicitly or explicitly connect to contemporary concerns. For examples, the renaissance in scholarly attention to women’s temperance organizations since the 1970s emerged in large part because feminist academics sought to recover powerful women from the past who served the cause of women’s liberation in their own way, particularly by fighting for universal suffrage and an expanded role for women in the public sphere. While women were gaining the franchise through their prohibition activism, African Americans were losing theirs, and prohibitionists all too often used the resistance of many African Americans to prohibition as a justification for supporting poll taxes and other Jim Crow laws to mitigate their influence. If our interest lies in uncovering figures who inspire us, what hope is there in studying African Americans and prohibition if the story is what we might expect: a tale of woe and disfranchisement? Especially since prohibition took place while the vast majority of African Americans lived in the Jim Crow South, what agency can we expect to find for men and women who could not vote because of the color of their skin?

When we dig, however, we may find a few surprises. My own research has discovered that African American Texans were for nearly 30 years a crucial swing vote sought by wets and drys alike. I have uncovered evidence for significant African American political engagement on both sides of the issue: letters by black Baptist and Methodist ministers, evangelists, and newspapermen conspiring to get out the African American vote against prohibition and letters from such figures working with prohibitionists or even advising them (successfully) on political strategy. Nearly a decade after the state imposed a poll tax in 1902, thousands of African Americans cast decisive votes in a narrowly decided statewide prohibition election in 1911 that kept Texas wet until after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919. In essence, African Americans continued to play active roles on both sides of the prohibition issue years after poll taxes supposedly crippled their political influence, and they played an essential role in keeping Texas wet longer than any Southern state save Louisiana.

At the latest meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta this past January, some at the ADHS gathering mentioned this issue explicitly. One excellent suggestion was to broaden the scope of our studies internationally beyond North America and Europe. But what about those of us who focus our work primarily on North America? How can we more adequately incorporate people of color into our national, regional, or local studies in a way that does justice to their agency? For my studies of prohibition in the U.S. South, these questions take a narrower form, such as: how do I illuminate the agency African Americans exercised on the question of prohibition? All of us are limited by the time, geography, demographics, and sources of our studies and cannot possibly cover every group. Yet I suggest that if we broaden the range of our scholarly vision a bit more to include some figures at the margins, they may enrich our work and take us to fascinating, unexpected places. If we follow them where they are, we might not have to try so hard to give them agency but may discover that they already have it; all we need do is tell their stories.

One thought on “African American Agency and (Anti-)Prohibition

  1. Don’t forget the Good Templars. Thousands of African American men and women joined this fraternal temperance society, It was pledged to support prohibition. William Wells Brown is a well known member, W.M. Artrell much less so.

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