The Points Interview: Lee Willis

Editor’s Note: The Points Interview returns for the twenty-fourth time, once again examining a chapter out of the history of alcohol.  Today, we talk with Lee Willis, author of Southern Prohibition: Race, Reform, and Public Life in Middle Florida, 1821-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 2011).  Lee Willis is currently an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and we’re delighted to have him discuss his new work.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Southern Prohibition traces the evolution of temperance reform in Middle Florida, a region in the center of the state’s panhandle, from 1821 to 1920. Middle Florida was home to the capital, Tallahassee, as well as the largest cotton plantations in the state. The book Cover of Southern Prohibitionfollows the changing nature of alcohol consumption and how tavern and saloon life changed over time.  While alcohol was the most popular psychoactive substance, the book points out that other forms of altered consciousness, such as the consumption of narcotics, were available to Floridians as early as the 1820s. Though there was very little social concern about recreational drug use during this period, these substances faced tightening statewide regulations in the early twentieth century. All the while, particularly from the late 1880s until the 1910s, Floridians were closing saloons through local option (a county-level referendum on “going dry”). What little discussion there was about opiates and cocaine focused on the substances themselves, whereas much of the concern about alcohol centered on the space (the tavern or saloon) where people consumed liquor and beer. Supporters of prohibition tended to be parents of young children and they were both white and black. The most powerful motivation for prohibition—in this region at least—was the desire to curb the spread of black saloons. Whites wanted to arrest the development of a potentially unruly underclass and middle class blacks wanted to curb the deleterious influences of abusive alcohol consumption in their communities.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Specialists will recognize that the book is unusual in its combination of a tight geographic focus, a long historical sweep, and a broader consideration of psychoactive substances other than alcohol. I hope drug and alcohol historians will see this approach as useful for developing a more in depth understanding of how reform evolved in different locales. For example, before researching this region, I assumed that temperance was not important in Florida and the Deep South until the late nineteenth century. When I took a closer look, however, I realized that the issue had an enormous impact on public life from the beginning of the territorial period.

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