Prohibition in Black and White: Temperance and Race in the American South, 1890-1920

Mackenzie Tor, University of Missouri, Columbia

By the time Prohibition took effect in 1920, each of America’s Southern states had already passed statewide prohibition legislation. Historians of the Progressive era, the temperance movement, and Prohibition have extensively studied the ways in which Northern and Midwestern reformers crusaded against alcohol; less often have they examined the crusade against alcohol in the South, where the ‘race question’ tinted branches of national reform movements. Surprisingly, though, Southerners were among the fiercest advocates of temperance. This paper addresses why statewide prohibition movements in the South made such remarkable progress by unpacking the discourse surrounding race and alcohol. I contend that prohibition was considered a crucial method of racial control for undoing gains made during Reconstruction. Integral to this narrative is the criminalization of majority-Black urban spaces. Progressive reformers typically associated rural areas with virtue; cities stood for vice and corruption. As Black Americans migrated to Southern cities during Reconstruction, white reformers conflated Blackness with the perceived pitfalls and poverty of urban centers, especially drunkenness. This was so despite an influential, public-facing Black population who preached temperance. Instead, white Southerners tapped into longstanding racial anxieties to emphasize the need for prohibition. Black drinkers, whites claimed, lost control when intoxicated. Allegedly, they were more prone to insanity and crime, especially assaults on white women. Imaginings of Black drunkenness thus led white reformers to implement prohibition as a means to racial control in the post-Reconstruction South. In this sense, enforcement often disproportionately targeted Black individuals and business districts to provide a sense of security for white city-dwellers. In these ways, this paper explores connections between past and present conversations about racism, examining themes such as eugenic pseudo-science and policing, as well as the persistence of Black Americans in the face of oppression.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 236. Segregation and Sickness: Race and Health Inequalities