Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/JD Abbin
JD Abbin took part in an interview conducted by the Federal Writer's Project on 15 February 1939. The Federal Writer's Project was created under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in order to provide employment to historians, librarians and writers affected by the Great Depression.
Dade City, Florida
JD Abbin was a Floridian farmer/migrant worker/rumrunner/cowboy during the Great Depression.
Abbin was born near Dade City, Florida in 1903. The son of poor sharecroppers, he spent much of his young life on the move, with very little in the way of an education. From Dade City, he and his family moved to DeSoto and Manatee Counties searching for work. Eventually settling in Sawgrass Slough near Bradenton when Abbin was 16, they still found hardship as their crops were repeatedly destroyed by cold weather, drought, blight, and insects. To help make extra money, Abbin and his father distilled and ran moonshine during Prohibition.
After two years of living at Sawgrass Slough, Abbin's mother died of pellagra and his 50 year-old father promptly married the 14 year-old daughter of another local farmer. The tension between the new step-mother and Abbin and his 17 year-old sister Dory eventually caused them to leave home (and Abbin’s love interest, a girl named Birdie Lee) to stay with relatives in Bradenton.
Life on the Road
Upon arrival in Bradenton, Abbin was connected with a rumrunner he called Captain Bob and helped smuggle liquor from Cuba. This he found to be a much more lucrative trade than farming (he ended up spending all his money on women and gambling), even if it was dangerous. One night, a sheriff’s deputy shot him in the leg with a .38 caliber pistol after the boat was discovered bringing a load into shore. While on a visit home to see Birdie Lee, Abbin heard from a local bootlegger that there was a warrant out for his boss Captain Bob, so, fearing for his safety, he fled to the Everglades with a trapper he knew and spent the winter hunting and trapping.
After spending all his money from the winter in Miami, Abbin went back out on the road, working on a farm for a widow that desperately wanted him to marry her; then in a turpentine camp, a sawmill, as a guard on a chain gang and other odd jobs until 1936. It was then that he rented a small plot of land in Lee County, Florida and grew $2000 worth of tomatoes. There he crossed paths again with Birdie Lee, and the two married. They farmed together and Birdie Lee taught Abbin how to read the Bible until the summer of 1938, when they traveled to Detroit, Michigan. In Detroit, Abbin worked in the Ford automobile plant, and was arrested twice for assaulting African-Americans who sat beside him in public (something unheard of in the South at that time). After six months in the North, Abbin and Birdie Lee returned to Florida and with the goal of finding a plot of land and returning to farming.
Rumrunning in Prohibition
In 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and in 1920 passed the Volstead Act, outlawing the production, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Championed by Women’s Temperance movements and rural elements of the Protestant Church and intended to improve the overall moral behavior of the American populace, liquor’s illegality instead had the opposite effect. Speakeasies emerged in cities all over the country and smugglers found a lucrative new product in the illegal spirits.
As alcohol production ceased in the United States, the new demand caused it to flourish abroad, particularly in places like Cuba and the West Indies. In Cuba, rum distilleries thrived and a new culture of sin developed in its major cities. In Havana, Americans could indulge in all the pleasures unavailable to them back home. Professional smugglers and tourists alike began to find new and ingenious ways of bringing the contraband back to the States with them. When faster boats weren’t options, submersion tanks, false bottoms and other tricks were implemented. The Bahamas gained notoriety during Prohibition as well, as various liquors from across the British Empire were assembled around the islands barely 50 miles off the coast of Florida. From there they were transported by ship to a spot called Rum Row, where they would await smugglers in their smaller craft to take them into shore. The US Coast Guard shifted its role almost entirely to stopping the flow of alcohol by sea, taking on 4000 new officers and sailors by 1925 alone, but due to lack of funding and the necessary equipment could not eliminate it completely.
Prohibition came to an end in 1933, with the country in the grips of the Great Depression and the realization that alcohol represented a new industry that was taxable and could provide thousands of jobs. With it ended a tumultuous period in American History marred by crime, corruption, and greed.
The Great Migration
The turn of the 20th Century marked one of the largest mass exoduses in modern history. From the early 1900s until the late ‘60s, six million black Americans from all over the South moved north in search of greater opportunity outside the land of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. In the process they altered the demographic and cultural landscape of the United States forever.
It began with the outbreak of the First World War. Coupled with limited immigration and demand for industrial workers to supply soldiers in Europe, 500000 blacks made their way north. As the Great Depression set in, conditions in the South only got worse politically and agriculturally, driving thousands more to places like New York and California in search of employment. However, life was not without its dangers in the new havens of the north. Black labor unions found it increasingly difficult to negotiate with white industrial leaders, and violence from whites who had also come north to look for work was still a possibility. As with the Italians, Irish, and other groups that made their way to America, the Great Migration transformed the demography of urban neighborhoods and gave way to a new culture. Movements like the Harlem Renaissance and the development of jazz all resulted from this melting pot of new northern and traditional southern customs.
The increasing migration of blacks from the South and the increasing attention to the restrictions of the Jim Crow laws by the public eventually culminated in the Civil Rights Movement and the fall of Jim Crow in the late 1960s. By the Great Migration’s end, 47% of all blacks in the United States no longer lived in the South. The effects are still visible forty years on, in every major city in America. It is embedded in the national identity through art, music, language, and food.
- Ciment, James. "African Americans." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression and the New Deal. Vol. 1. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2001.
- Ciment, James. "Prohibition." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression and the New Deal. Vol. 1. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2001.
- Rovner, Eduardo Sáenz. The Cuban Connection: Drug Trafficking, Smuggling, and Gambling in Cuba from the 1920s to the Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
- Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. New York, NY: Random House, 2010.
- Carter, James A., III. "Florida and Rumrunning during National Prohibition." Florida Historical Quarterly 48, no. 1 (July 1969): 47-56.
- Washington, AH ULM. "Battle of Rum Row." New York Times, October 4, 1925.
- Federal Writers’ Project. Collection 03709. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.
- JD Abbin Papers, 15 February 1939, 97, Collection 3709, Federal Writers’ Project, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.
- Ciment, “Prohibition,” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression and the New Deal, 208
- Rovner, The Cuban Connection, 19
- Carter, "Florida and Rumrunning," 49-50
- Washington, "Battle for Rum Row"
- Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, 9
- Ciment, “African Americans,” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression and the New Deal, 50
- Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, 11