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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Mending Over Moonshine

Unearthing Baptisttown’s Prohibition history.

When a mystery tunnel was found under Your Brother’s Bookstore last year, Tory Schendel-Vyvoda, curator at the Evansville African American Museum, joined store owners Adam and Sam Morris to find out if it was linked to the Civil War.

Photo by Zach Straw

“Our research indicated an Underground Railroad station along Main Street,” Schendel-Vyvoda says.

Their flashlights revealed something else: a Prohibition-era bootleg joint.

They found parts of a still to make moonshine, jugs to store it, and glasses to drink it. Dusty tables and chairs meant gambling. The moonshine jugs and personal effects from patrons became part of the museum’s exhibition, “Baptisttown & Prohibition.”

“When news about the bootleg joint broke, families began sharing their histories of Baptisttown and Prohibition,” Schendel-Vyvoda says.

Other sources filled in the story. Vanderburgh County Historian Stan Schmitt confirmed that bootleg gathering spots like the one under the bookstore were common Downtown and in Baptisttown, Evansville’s majority Black community, during Prohibition in the 1920s and early ‘30s. Waiters from the McCurdy building would visit them after work, says Watez Phelps, the museum board’s founding secretary.

“Evansville’s bootleggers, Black and white, worked together to make and move liquor,” Schendel-Vyvoda says. “Their bootlegging connections carried over into their daily lives.”

Photo by Zach Straw

This unexpected benefit of Prohibition was timely. Two decades before, Evansville’s 1903 race riot caused the deaths of 12 people following the shooting death of a white police officer. Thousands of Black residents left the city after Indiana’s governor imposed martial law.

“Baptisttown and Prohibition” is the first museum exhibition to tell these oral histories.

The Baptisttown neighborhood gradually regained its population and vibrancy, eventually boasting more than 200 Black-owned businesses, schools, churches, and houses.

“African Americans’ contributions to Evansville were most visible in Baptisttown,” says Kori Miller, the museum’s executive director. “It was a community within a community.”

“Baptisttown and Prohibition” debuted at the museum on April 7 and will be featured in the upcoming PBS documentary, “Hoosier Spirits: Distilling in Indiana.”

“This shows what a gem our museum is for Evansville, and we hope more people will see that,” Miller says.

BAPTISTTOWN & PROHIBITION

evvaam.org

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Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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