Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Summer II/Section 09/Mary "Liza" Miller

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Mary "Liza" Miller[edit | edit source]

Mary "Liza" Miller
Born1874
Asheville, NC
OccupationFarmer, Maid, Cook, Bootlegger

Overview[edit | edit source]

Mary “Liza” Miller, an African-American, was interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project on February 9th, 1939 by Douglas Carter. At the time of the interview she was living at 97 Blackstone Street in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1939 Miller was a widow and survived by bootlegging,[1] the “illegal traffic in liquor in violation of legislative restrictions on its manufacture, sale, or transportation".[2]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Miller was born around 1874 as the second of eight children.[3] Her parents worked as farmers on a farm around twelve miles away from the town, presumably Asheville. Shortly after the birth of Miller, the family moved closer to town and continued to farm. As Miller grew older, she helped with work on the farm. To make extra money, Miller’s father hauled wood to the nearby town.

At the age of 16 Miller married “her hero”.[4] Together they had a daughter. This daughter had a son, Jake. Sometime after Jake’s birth the daughter died. This left Miller and her husband as Jake’s guardians. Around 1900 she was widowed.[5] As if two deaths weren’t enough, Jake would also die. None of these deaths have a confirmed date from Miller. Furthermore, Miller only gives the name of her grandson when talking about her past.

Late Life[edit | edit source]

To make ends meet after being widowed, Miller became employed as a maid to a white family in town.[6] She later became a cook for several local families. During her employment under the Holts she was often sent out to get liquor. She was sent because this was during Prohibition and the Holts didn’t want to risk getting caught. During one of these runs Miller realized she could make more money by selling her own liquor to the families. Once she discovered she could sell liquor for a high profit she quit the Holts and sold liquor full time. During World War I she was able to sell two ounces for 50 cents.[7] This profit would subside; In 1939 two ounces would only cost a dime.[8]

Miller ran this small business out of her own home, located at 97 Blackstone Street in Asheville, North Carolina.[9] She kept her house spotless and inconspicuous. The liquor was kept in a container over the sink so she could dump it if needed. There was also strong door to keep the unwanted out. Despite this, the outside of her house looked well-kept and normal.

At the time of the interview Miller had just turned 65.[10] There is no death date for Mary “Liza” Miller since a headstone cannot be found.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Disposal of illegal alcohol.[11]

The Female Roles in Prohibition and Bootlegging[edit | edit source]

Prohibition had been brought on by the Temperance Movement, which was led primarily by women. In Mary Murphy’s words “There is great irony in Prohibition. The law had in effect, created a vacuum of rules, and women exploited the opportunity to slip into niches in the economy of liquor production, distribution, and consumption”.[12]

Women’s roll in the consumption of alcohol changed drastically during and after Prohibition. Previously, saloons were the only place to get alcohol. If a woman went into one, she was considered to be a “loose” woman and most likely was a prostitute.[13] With the introduction of nightclubs and speakeasies it was much easier for a woman to obtain liquor without the negative connotation it had previously brought.

Those who did get into bootlegging found it much easier for them to hide from the police than men. The process of making liquor appeared to most as just a household chore. Furthermore, many states had laws protecting women from police searches.[14] The women who chose to started producing liquor were often “widowed, divorced, or separated from their husbands”.[15] They were bootlegging as a way to make money to provide for their children. Due to this, many women were able to escape charges. However, repeat offenders were often given a high fine and jail time.[16]

African Americans during Prohibition[edit | edit source]

Before Prohibition, African Americans’ electoral strength had been slowly declining. However, black voting rebounded as Prohibition split the voting between the wets, those anti-Prohibition, and the drys, those pro-Prohibition.[17] While many of the African Americans performed paid labor such as domestic services and various trades[18], this wasn’t the only way they made money. The laws allowed for ethnic groups “to capitalize on the underground economy by launching new businesses in the manufacturing and sale of liquor”.[19] There is a high likelihood that African Americans were just as involved as white people in bootlegging, however there aren’t as many documented cases. It is thought that the ethnic neighborhoods that separated whites from blacks is what protected African Americans.[20]

  1. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Folder 317, Federal Writing Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Bootlegging.” Encyclopædia Britannica. March 3, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/bootlegging.
  3. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Federal Writing Project Papers.
  4. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Federal Writing Project Papers.
  5. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Federal Writing Project Papers.
  6. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Federal Writing Project Papers.
  7. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Federal Writing Project Papers.
  8. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Federal Writing Project Papers.
  9. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Federal Writing Project Papers.
  10. Interview, Douglas Carter on Mary Miller, February 9, 1939, Federal Writing Project Papers.
  11. "Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol." Wikimedia Commons. Accessed July 14, 2020. https://en.wikiversity.org/w/index.php?title=Federal_Writers%27_Project_%E2%80%93_Life_Histories/2020/Summer_II/Section_09/Mary_%22Liza%22_Miller&action=submit#/media/File:Prohibition_agents_destroying_barrels_of_alcohol_(United_States,_prohibition_era).jpg
  12. Murphy, Mary. "Bootlegging Mothers and Drinking Daughters: Gender and Prohibition in Butte, Montana." American Quarterly 46, no. 2 (1994): 174-194. Accessed July 9, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/2713337
  13. Murphy, Mary. "Bootlegging Mothers and Drinking Daughters: Gender and Prohibition in Butte, Montana." American Quarterly.
  14. Hanson, David J. “Women Bootleggers and Women Prohibition Agents.” Alcohol Problems & Solutions. October 15, 2019. https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/women-bootleggers-during-prohibition-there-were-many/.
  15. Sanchez, Tanya Marie. "The Feminine Side of Bootlegging." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 41, no. 4 (2000): 403-433. Accessed July 9, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/4233697.
  16. Sanchez, Tanya Marie. "The Feminine Side of Bootlegging." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association.
  17. West, Stephen A. ""A Hot Municipal Contest": Prohibition and Black Politics in Greenville, South Carolina, after Reconstruction." The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 11, no. 4 (2012): 519-551. Accessed July 9, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/41721067.
  18. West, Stephen A. ""A Hot Municipal Contest": Prohibition and Black Politics in Greenville, South Carolina, after Reconstruction." The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  19. Murphy, Mary. "Bootlegging Mothers and Drinking Daughters: Gender and Prohibition in Butte, Montana." American Quarterly.
  20. Sanchez, Tanya Marie. "The Feminine Side of Bootlegging." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association.