Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Mary "Liza" Miller

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Mary "Liza" Miller
ResidenceAsheville, North Carolina
Other namesLiza
EthnicityAfrican American



Mary "Liza" Miller[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Mary Miller was an African American bootlegger in Asheville, North Carolina during prohibition. On February 9, 1939, she was interviewed by Douglas Carter at her home in Asheville as a part of the Federal Writers Project.[1] Carter changed her name to “Liza” in the interview transcript, likely to protect her identity and business from law enforcement officials.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Mary Miller was born the second of eight children on a family farm twelve miles outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Her family moved closer to a town and began selling wood a couple of years after she was born. At 16 she married a man and had one daughter. Her husband died in 1900, so Miller became a maid for a white family in Asheville before becoming their cook.[2] She cooked for several other families later. When working for the Holt family, prohibition was instituted statewide in North Carolina. It became Miller’s job to buy alcohol for the family because they were scared to get caught by law enforcement. After discovering a way to buy liquor in bulk, she sold it to the Holts for a profit. Once Miller learned she could make much more money selling illegal liquor than cooking, she quit her job as a cook and began her own bootlegging business.[3] She learned to make her own liquor and sold it to families she used to serve as well as others.

After World War I, Miller moved into a very nice home in a black area of Asheville. By this time in her life, her daughter had passed away, and she was caring for her grandson Jake who died several years before the interview.[4] In her new house in a black residential district, Miller sold liquor out of her home. Her booming business sold to many loyal white men in various economic situations and occasionally their wives. To retain her white clientele, she refused to sell to black men, claiming they had a “smell” that lingered in the house.[5] She did, however, employ a black man named Oscar who helped her with daily tasks of running her business and drove her to the farm she owned to collect rent from the white family who lived there. She did not trust anyone else to run her business without her present, so he was rarely left in charge. Every year, Miller threw a party for her birthday where she uses the cooking and hosting skills she learned from her previous employers to make a feast for her friends. She turned 65 prior to the interview and had what was said to be a spectacular party. [6]

"The Clubhouse"[edit | edit source]

Miller’s house, affectionately nicknamed “The Clubhouse” by its patrons, was an orderly operation, prepared for anything.[7] The well-manicured house had a back door where customers could ring a buzzer. After Miller evaluated the guest to be an appropriate customer from a concealed spot on the stairs, she had unlocked the door using a string system. If a law enforcement officer ever knocked on the door, Miller quickly poured her homemade whiskey down the drain, as she never kept more than one quart at a time.[8] Then, she would open the door and invite the officers inside her home, confident the officers would find nothing unlawful. She was caught several times but only had to pay a small fine. For her regular customers, The Clubhouse was open from 6 am to 9 pm. Most customers come to purchase alcohol in the kitchen and leave, but sometimes they would gather for drinks in the sitting room. Miller tried to limit the number of customers who stayed because having so many cars outside her house made her nervous. At the time of the interview she was still selling liquor and proclaimed that if legal liquor returned to the area, she would quit selling.[9]

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Prohibition and Bootlegging[edit | edit source]

North Carolina sheriff captures 126 gallons of bootleg whiskey in Rockingham County, North Carolina.

Nationwide Prohibition was instituted in the United States in 1920, making “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages” illegal in all 50 states with the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919.[10] The national law, however, did not affect North Carolina, as it had been a dry state since 1908.[11] National prohibition was passed in an attempt to limit crime, solve social issues, and improve public health, but after an initial drop in alcohol consumption, prohibition backfired with an increase in the illegal sale of alcohol.[12] While prohibition did reduce alcohol consumption per person, the long-term consequences were largely negative. Nationwide prohibition “contributed to widespread corruption of police and public officials” and increased organized crime that continued long after it was repealed.[13] Bootlegging, or selling alcohol illegally, ran rampant and ranged from small homemade businesses to national operations. It was not until the Great Depression in 1933 that the government overturned nationwide prohibition because the government needed tax revenue from alcohol to help the economy recover.[14] While the national law was overturned, prohibition remained in effect statewide in North Carolina until 1937.[15]

Women during the Prohibition Era[edit | edit source]

During prohibition, women experienced more freedom than they had previously. Older women were pleased to have gained the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment, and younger women were excited for the social freedoms that came at the end of World War I.[16] The war changed ideals for this “flapper generation.” Morality resided in being an authentic version of oneself and individuality.[17] While double standards were ever-present, sexual freedom expanded, as women’s clothing became shorter and looser, encouraging a slim body type.[18] These freedoms, however, perpetuated the stereotype of careless and materialistic women that lasted long after the end of the Prohibition Era. Additionally, many women took it upon themselves to extend their freedoms to their economic situations and joined the workforce in industry, medicine, and education.[19]

Some women used their newfound freedom to exploit the monetary gain bootlegging offered. While they were not often a part of major operations, many women made their own alcohol and ran small businesses with a loyal following. “Most [female bootleggers] were widowed, divorced, or separated from their husbands” and used bootlegging to support themselves or their families.[20] Additionally, women often escaped severe criminal consequences when they were caught because they admitted their crimes, “explaining that they had turned to lawlessness out of desperation to support their families.”[21] The reduced consequences made bootlegging less risky for women.

Segregation In North Carolina[edit | edit source]

A "Colored Waiting Room" sign hangs in a Durham, North Carolina train station in 1940.

"Jim Crow" Laws[edit | edit source]

Southern states adopted a collection of segregationist laws from approximately the 1890s to the 1960s known informally as “Jim Crow” laws.[22] The laws worked around federal protections to separate races in as many areas of life as possible. Jim Crow laws separated white people from “colored” people in public schools, libraries, railroad cars, hotels, and restaurants.[23] Facilities designated “colored” were almost always shockingly inferior to white facilities.[24]

Residential Segregation[edit | edit source]

In North Carolina, residential segregation ordinances were enforced in 1912 in Winston-Salem, Asheville, and Mooresville that “created black and white residential zones.”[25] The economic costs of African American’s being allowed in the same businesses and residential areas as white Americans may have driven the political actions restricting where black Americans could live, eat, and go to school.[26] While zones restricted where both races could live, they also prohibited black Americans from owning a business in white zones but allowed white people to own businesses in either zone. These residential zones, like segregated facilities, were created “separate but not equal.”[27] Infrastructure was severely lacking in black zones, and inequalities lasted beyond the federal repeal of residential segregation in 1948.[28]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Hall, Wayne. “What Are the Policy Lessons of National Alcohol Prohibition in the United States, 1920-1933?” Addiction 105, no. 7 (2010): 1164–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.02926.x.

Locke, Joseph L., and Ben Wright. “The Progressive Era.” Essay. In The American Yawp: a Massively Collaborative Open U.S. History Textbook, II:20. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019. https://www.americanyawp.com/.

Miller, Mary “The Clubhouse.” Interview by Carter, Douglas, February 9, 1939, Folder 317, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

Merryman, Kristen. “Prohibition, Bootlegging, and the Law in North Carolina.” DigitalNC. North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, January 17, 2014. https://www.digitalnc.org/blog/prohibition-bootlegging-and-the-law-in-north-carolina/.

North Carolina History Project, ed. “Residential Segregation.” North Carolina History Project, March 16, 2016. https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/residential-segregation/.

Silverstein, Barrett A. “1920s: A Decade of Change.” NCpedia. Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, 2004. https://www.ncpedia.org/history/20th-Century/1920s.

Sanchez, Tanya Marie. "The Feminine Side of Bootlegging." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 41, no. 4 (2000): 403-33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4233697.

Troesken, Werner, and Randall Walsh. “Collective Action, White Flight, and the Origins of Racial Zoning Laws.” The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 35, no. 2 (2019): 289–318. https://doi.org/10.1093/jleo/ewz006.

Walbert, David. “The Birth of ‘Jim Crow.’” NCPedia. ANCHOR, 2009. https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/birth-jim-crow.

  1. Miller, The Clubhouse, 1939.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Silverstein, "1920s: A Decade"
  11. Merryman “Prohibition, Bootlegging, and the Law”
  12. Silverstein.
  13. Hall, “Policy Lessons of National Alcohol Prohibition”
  14. Hall.
  15. Merryman.
  16. Silverstein.
  17. Locke & Wright, “The American YAWP.”
  18. Locke & Wright.
  19. Locke & Wright.
  20. Sanchez, "The Feminine Side."
  21. Sanchez.
  22. Walbert, The Birth of “Jim Crow,” 2009.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. North Carolina History Project, “Residential Segregation.”
  26. Troesken, Werner, and Randall Walsh, "Collective Action."
  27. North Carolina History Project.
  28. North Carolina History Project.