Researching the African-American involvement in the Bourbon industry before Prohibition is difficult at best. There are not a lot of written sources as enslaved people did not get mentioned much in business documents and if they are mentioned it is only as a slave. After the Civil War recognition of the African-American contributions to the industry did not get much better. However there has to be an oral history of their involvement amongst the families of those who did work in the industry and I would encourage anyone with such stories to share them with a local oral history program. African-Americans made significant contributions to the distilling industry, though much of this history is yet to be discovered.
Here is what I do know. The Filson Historical Society does have a few documents about involvement of enslaved people in the industry. One such document is a distillery ledger that records the rental of enslaved people. The ledger does not mention any names nor what they were rented to do for the person renting them. However, it is known that many enslaved people were skilled coopers and distillers. For example another document in The Filson’s collection is a newspaper containing an advertisement describing a runaway slave from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Plantation where he is described as being a talented distiller. And, of course, it is documented that Jack Daniel learned to distill from a former slave, Nearest Green.
It is quite likely that some of the distilling families of ante-bellum Kentucky owned enslaved people and they would likely to have been involved with the distilling business. The economics of enslavement suggests that it was more likely that the families would have used slave labor rather than to hire a free person for a wage. To rent an enslaved person on a seasonal basis was another likely business practice so even if the distilling family were not slave owners themselves, then they likely had the option to rent enslaved people with distilling expertise when they required the extra labor or expertise.
After emancipation, African-Americans were mostly relegated to the menial jobs in society, including those in the distilling industry. When examining photographs from the 19th century distillery crews, there are usually one or two African-Americans shown in the photograph, but they are to the side and holding the coal shovels. This indicates they were doing the hot, hard job of feeding the boilers.
However, we do know that there were African-American women on at least one bottling line. In the Taylor-Hay Family Papers at The Filson Historical Society, E.H. Taylor, Jr. received some attention during one of his campaigns for Mayor of Frankfort because he was said to have favored a black woman over a white woman in assigning a position on the bottling line.
Some distillers were more progressive than others but there was still racism. Being an immigrant and a progressive Jewish man, I. W. Bernheim was a devout Republican because he believed that Lincoln led the movement to end slavery and to give all people a chance at prosperity. He hired African-American workers. He also targeted the African-American market for the sale of his whiskey using a series of advertisements that, by today’s standards, would be considered quite racist. They were stereotypical representations of African-Americans in daily life drinking whiskey. He sold a lot of whiskey in the African-American neighborhoods. The African-American market was an important one to many distillers as shown by the images often found on labels before Prohibition. Unfortunately, these images and brand names contained racist stereotypes of African-Americans with names like “Cotton Picker”, a tone-deaf attempt at marketing to African-Americans.
The role of African-Americans in the distilling industry changed after Prohibition, mostly because of World War II when labor shortages opened the doors to better jobs for many African-Americans. Once again some companies were more progressive than others. Schenley was a very progressive company and hired many African-Americans for positions in the warehouse and distillery. One former Schenley employee told me the story of Louis Rosensteil visiting the Old Quaker Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana in the late 1960s. He flew in by helicopter and upon arrival he ignored all of the executives lined up to greet him and went straight to an African-American warehouse worker who had been with the company for many years to shake his hand and inquire about his family. There are many photographs of Schenley holiday parties and summer picnics with many African-American families in attendance.
African-American workers were gaining respect in the industry and by the end of the 20th century they were moving up in the ranks and gaining positions of leadership. For example, Frenchie Robinson, an African-American woman, was in charge of barrel inventory and warehouse assignments when I was at United Distillers in the 1990s. She was THE person in the company if you wanted to purchase barrels.
There are still barriers to break for African-Americans in the industry, including more African-American ownership of distilleries as well as greater representation in upper management in the large corporations, but there has been a great deal of progress since the days of the nameless enslaved people in a distillery ledger of the 1840s.
There needs to be more research in this field of distilling history. Oral histories from families would be a great contribution to this field. A look at the involvement of African-Americans in the distilleries of Free States like Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio before and after Emancipation is another area of interest. There is work to be done and I hope to see this subject pursued by graduate students in the Universities in the near future. I hope this blog inspires such a student.
Photos Courtesy of the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress