Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Caging the Blind Tiger: Race, Class, and Family in the Battle for Prohibition in Small Town Arkansas

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Caging the Blind Tiger: Race, Class, and Family in the Battle for Prohibition in Small Town Arkansas

Article excerpt

IN MAY 1918, JUDGE W. J. DRIVER declared that Poinsett County, Arkansas, was a "hot bed for bootleggers" who "are so thick . . . they have to tag one another to prevent the fraternity from soliciting among its own membership." 1 Though statewide prohibition had been implemented on January 1, 1916, liquor distilling in Poinsett County rivaled that taking place forty miles away on the remote towheads and islands of the Mississippi River. One "blind tiger" (illegal saloon) operator on Island 34 sold a brand of whiskey sporting the label: "Ike Williams, Pure Old Panther Piss-Distilled and Bottled in Marked Tree, Arkansas."2 Indeed, Ike Williams had continued to distribute his product widely even though certain Marked Tree citizens had conducted a sustained campaign, beginning as early as 1908, to close the town's saloons and hunt down bootleggers. They met only frustration. Marked Tree would be one of the last towns in Arkansas to go dry.

The situation was very different in Osceola, only about twenty miles to the northeast in Mississippi County. While Marked Tree officials struggled with bootleggers and blind tiger joints, officials in Osceola shut down the town's saloons in 1906, earlier than almost any delta town and apparently quite effectively. Authorities even sent town marshals to patrol landings along the river outside of town.3

What accounted for Osceola's success in prohibiting liquor within and even beyond the town limits by 1906, while Marked Tree remained "wet" virtually until the eve of state-mandated prohibition and continued to be plagued with an unsavory reputation afterward? Arkansas prohibitionists, recognizing that they consistently lost local option elections in certain places with high black populations, would likely have answered this question in terms of the numbers of African Americans in the two towns.4 The first full-length study of the prohibition movement in Arkansas, a master's thesis by George Murrell Hunt in 1933, accepted prohibitionist claims that the state's black population presented a major impediment to their cause. Subsequent historians have addressed the role that the desire for social control over blacks played in the imposition of prohibition across the South, and the role the widespread impression that African Americans were wet played in building sentiment for suffrage restriction. Dewey Grantham's wellknown book on southern progressivism pointed out that many reformers in the South saw prohibition as hinging on the disfranchisement of "undependable" and "criminally inclined" blacks. John Dittmer concluded that the "identification of liquor, blacks, and rape hastened dry legislation" in Georgia. William Link echoed both Dittmer and Grantham, showing that in North Carolina, too, prohibition was linked with suffrage restriction as a means to purify the electoral process. Few of these studies, though, considered the role African Americans actually played in prohibition campaigns in southern communities.5

More recently, historians have reexamined the prohibition drive in the South, paying more attention to African Americans' actual involvement in the struggle rather than just what their white contemporaries believed about them. Ben F. Johnson's John Barleycorn Must Die: The War against Drink in Arkansas reflects this more nuanced historiography. Although many white prohibitionists identified the black voter as an enemy to their cause, Johnson demonstrates that some appealed to black leaders for support and that certain prominent African Americans like Scipio Jones embraced the movement. In the months prior to passage of statewide prohibition, certain black church leaders fell into line with the drys, though, ironically, this did not cause white prohibitionists to change their views about African Americans. Glenda Gilmore in Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 considers the presence of black women in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). …

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