The Prohibition Plum Tree

The Volstead Act

Prior to the passage of the Volstead Act, streamlined channels were put in place to ensure access to the world’s finest liquid spirits–despite the new legislation that took effect on January 1, 1920. For people of means, Prohibition merely added a bit of effervescence to their lives. Narcotics–opium, White Horse heroin, marijuana–were also gaining in popularity, especially as the Jazz Age blossomed.

But for others, the Volstead Act was a tool used to increase the vulnerability of people of color, the poor, and a large wave of European Catholic immigrants that were imagined to threaten “the American way of life.” These groups were especially vulnerable to prosecution and imprisonment for violating Volstead, while privileged white Americans avoided consequences.

In her article, Why the Ku Klux Klan Flourished Under Prohibition (Smithsonian Magazine, 2017 12 05) author Kat Eschener explains the complex layers of intent that helped to usher in the era of Prohibition. The effort was driven by the white American elite, along with bankers, developers and land owners, the members of various white mens’ and women’s clubs, the Anti-Saloon League, and the KKK. Santa Barbara County was no exception.

As far back as 1906, Santa Barbara County entertained the Anti-Saloon League, as described in one article in the Santa Barbara Weekly Press. On February 15, 1906, the “Presbyterian church of this city,” Santa Barbara, announced a “mass meeting,” in support of the League.

The additional bureaucracy generated by Volstead required new governmental bureaus and branches to uphold the unwieldy Act. Myriad departments and offices and thousands of employees were needed to administer the law. Federal oversight increased throughout California and the nation.

So many well-placed individuals in Southern California were awarded choice appointments and promotions as a result of Volstead that the LA Herald called it “the Prohibition plum tree.” (1920 06 10)

Immigrants, people of color, and the poor, already subject to discrimination, mob violence, and harassment by the Anti-Saloon League and the KKK , were also the targets of federal and state legislative efforts aimed at further limiting their civil rights.

James P Phelan, First National Bank, and a US Senator, ran for re-election using the slogan, “Keep California White.” It was a sentiment shared by many in Santa Barbara County, and throughout the state despite the contributions made by Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Mexican, and other people of color. Without the skill and tenacity, the contributions and hard work of Santa Barbara County’s agricultural workers, our history would have been a very different one.

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