"The Clubhouse" Zoe Leatherwood

Mary Miller was an African American woman from Asheville, NC, who spent over 30 years of her life as a bootlegger. Her interview in 1939 with the Federal Writers’ Project, a program that collected life stories, provided a unique perspective on common issues of the Great Depression, including prohibition and race relations in the United States.

The Life of Mary Miller

Early Life

Miller was born in early 1874 about 12 miles outside Asheville, North Carolina. She was the second of eight children and lived on a farm. When she was very young, her family moved closer to town and continued farming, but her father began hauling wood from a nearby estate to town for extra money during the winter. Miller described a camaraderie between her father and the other men (mostly white) who hauled wood, though they could be a bit competitive.


At the age of 16, Miller got married and the two were together until his death about ten years later. The two had a daughter together, who eventually had her own son named Jake. After Miller’s daughter died, she raised Jake as though he were her own son. He eventually died not long before the interview took place in February, 1939.

Bootlegging Business

After her husband’s death in 1900, Miller got a job as a maid to a white family in town, the Holts. Eventually, she was promoted to work in the kitchens as a cook. It was the Holt family that introduced her to the world of bootlegging.

Miller’s employers would send her out to buy illegal liquor for them, as they were too afraid to do it. After going to buy liquor a few times for them, Miller began to understand how bootlegging worked and decided that she knew enough to start her own business. She quit working for the Holts and started selling liquor out of her house to a clientele of elite white men.

Trials and tribulations

Racial Inequality during the Great Depression

Although Miller managed to find her niche within her community, the job market for African Americans was bleak—especially during and after the Great Depression. African Americans were the first people to be let go from their jobs and experienced an unemployment rate “two or three times that of whites" ("African American Life", para. 1). These economic blows would serve as a catalyst for many important political movements for African Americans, including organizations such as the National Negro Congress and Southern Negro Youth Congress (“African American Life During the Great Depression and New Deal”).

Additionally, many African American women worked jobs similar to the one Miller had with the Holts--maids, cooks, or any other form of domestic services. When work became scarce, many African American women became self-employed in such industries as a way of making money. Though the amount of money was next to nothing, it was that very aspect of the work that made it so appealing to these women, as these jobs required little to no qualifications (Boyd, p. 640).

Prohibition and Bootleggers

Miller’s choice of career, while still relatively uncommon, filled a high demand within her community. Many women chose the same career path as Miller because laws at the time enabled women to be less legally accountable than men. Police officers were not allowed to search women for any illegal substances and to accuse a woman of smuggling was seen as scandalous and altogether obscene. Besides, even if tried and found guilty of bootlegging, most judges didn’t have the stomach to put a woman behind bars, so they gave sentences such as attending church every Sunday for two years (Minnick, 2014).

Furthermore, the money made from bootlegging was outstanding. In Miller’s case, she was able to afford her own house as well as an additional farm property all on her own. This was the case for many women involved in bootlegging, including one woman from Milwaukee who confessed to bootlegging and stated she made approximately $30,000 per year from it (Minnick, 2014).

Miller was a rather distinct individual as not many female bootleggers were also African American (Minnick, 2014). A lot of African American women strongly opposed prohibition--not due to moral concerns, but rather political affiliations. Most African Americans were part of the Republican party at the time, due to its hand in abolishing slavery. Some African American women became concerned that Democrats were trying to sway black voters with the proposal of prohibition. Therefore, these women strongly campaigned against it (Materson, p. 63-65).

Federal Writers' Project

The story of Mary Miller was published as part of a collection of life histories written down by members of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP). The FWP was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hill, 64) with the purpose of collecting life stories during the Great Depression.

Many of the writers were encouraged to write the stories with the dialect of those they interviewed. According to the national administrator for the FWP, John Lomax, they wanted the writer to "preserve sufficient dialect and peculiar words so as to make the reader feel the Negro is talkin'" (Hill, 64). Within Miller's life history, there was not much dialect to speak of, with the exception of the writer spelling liquor as "likker". The primary concern while reading the story was how the writer, Douglas Carter, portrayed Miller's interactions with whites and African Americans.

Miller's life was spent during a time when race relations were particularly tumultuous, experiencing discrimination such as Jim Crow laws. However, the author of her life history depicted her having a better relationship with whites than African Americans. He noted how she refused to sell alcohol to other African Americans, but had a rather close and friendly relationship with her elite, white clientele. The author chose to highlight the amicable relationship between her father and the white men he worked with, yet never mentioned any other people who interacted with Miller's family. This evidence all points towards a discrepancy cited by Leonard Rapport that many of the writers for the FWP began to view themselves as "creative writers" rather than proponents of facts (Rapport, 11). According to Rapport, the FWP contained many undisciplined novices, thus the information from life histories like Miller's should be observed with a critical eye.

Works Cited

“African American Life During the Great Depression and the New Deal.” Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d. https://www.britannica.com/topic/African- American/African-American-life-during-the-Great-Depression-and-the-New- Deal. 31 Jan. 2017.

Boyd, Robert L. “Race, Self-Employment, and Labor Absorption.” American Journal of Economics & Sociology, vol. 71, no. 3, July 2012, pp. 639-661. http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?sid=2ed6bf9a-bd4f-4378-9c39- b65f36e17806%40sessionmgr120&vid=0&hid=124&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3 QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=77568764&db=ahl. 31 Jan. 2017.

Carter, Douglas. “The Clubhouse”, Folder 317 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hill, Lynda M. "Ex-Slave Narratives: The Wpa Federal Writers' Project Reappraised." Oral History 26.1 (1998): 64-72. JSTOR. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/40179473. 8 Feb. 2017.

Materson, Lisa C. “African American Women, Prohibition, and the 1928 Presidential Election.” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 21 no. 1, 2009, pp. 63-86. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?sid=0c5c106c-b530-4334-a676- bb601b432707%40sessionmgr4010&vid=0&hid=4112&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhv c3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=44993720&db=ahl. 31 Jan. 2017.

Minnick, Fred. “Women’s History Month Spotlight: Women Bootleggers.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 10 March 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/fred-minnick/womens-history-month- spot_b_4927284.html. 31 Jan. 2017.

Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review, vol. 7, 1979, pp. 6–17. www.jstor.org/stable/3675185.

Images Cited

“Al Capone and Prohibition.” History.com. A&E Networks Corp., n.d. <http://www.history.com/topics/prohibition/pictures/al-capone-and-prohibition/police-emptying-beer-barrels-during-prohibition>. 9 Feb 2017.

Boboltz, Sara. “Ladies Who Like To Drink Owe A Little Thanks To Prohibition.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 5 Dec 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/prohibition-repeal-women-drinking_us_5660602fe4b072e9d1c4e842>. 9 Feb 2017.

Carter, Douglas. “The Clubhouse”, Folder 317 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Lee, Russell. Negro cotton worker, New Madrid County, Missouri. May 1938. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. <http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997023105/PP>. Accessed 9 Feb 2017.

Minnick, Fred. “Women’s History Month Spotlight: Women Bootleggers.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 10 March 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/fred-minnick/womens-history-monthspot_b_4927284.html>. 31 Jan. 2017.

Mydans, Carl. Negro dwelling interior, Hamilton Co., Ohio. December 1935. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. <http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997000698/PP>. Accessed 9 Feb 2017.

Simon, Roger D. “Great Depression.” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, n.d. <http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/great-depression/>. 9 Feb 2017.

“Wet or Dry: A History of Prohibition in Fredericksburg.” Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc., 23 Oct 2016. <http://hffi.org/facility-resources/hffi-blog-articles/#top>. 9 Feb 2017.

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