Saturday, April 6, 2013

Jere Blowe: A Black Whiskey Man in a “Jim Crow” Era

Vicksburg panorama 1863
Jere M. Blowe, an African-American, ran a saloon and liquor business in Vicksburg, Mississippi, during a period of history when the local newspaper opined:  “Don’t mess with with white supremacy;  it is loaded with determination, gunpowder and dynamite.” Yet Blowe managed to provide leadership in his community and, apparently against all reason, professed to be proud of the city in which he spent his life.

Blowe, shown here in maturity, was born in Mississippi in 1861, perhaps into slavery.  His parents almost certainly were slaves, his father originally from Virginia, his mother from North Carolina.  Reputedly his natal place was Vicksburg.  If so, he as a baby with his family lived through the siege of the city by Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant.   Black troops from Mississippi recruited by the Union were among the forces who occupied Vicksburg.

Briefly during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877), blacks in Mississippi were given a measure of freedom equal to whites.  But as the Federal Government relented in its effort to seek equality for blacks,  a series of white-passed laws increasingly discriminated against the Negro population.  Growing up during Reconstruction, it is possible that Blowe was able to get a good public education, but he experienced the gradual erosion of rights for his people.

Of Jere’s early life we have little information.  By the late 1800s, he had established himself as a saloonkeeper and was operating a retail liquor store at 316 S. Washington Street.  He was assisted in this effort by his wife, Lulu (Chambers) Blowe, six years his junior and a school teacher.  Lulu was a three-generation Mississippian,  a descendent of slaves herself.  She and Jere both were considered “mulattos” by census takers.  They had one daughter, Ella, born in 1889.

In his book, “Dark Journey:  Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow,” Professor Neil R. McMillan says:  “With rare exceptions, the business of the race  were shoestring operations, small retail or personal service operations that teetered precariously between failure and extreme marginality... in 1899 [W.E.B.] Du Bois could find no black enterprise in the state with a capital investment of $10,000 or more.”  A photo shows a black business area in Vicksburg in Jim Crow times.

Blowe may have been one of those “rare exceptions.”  He could afford to sell his whiskey in ceramic jugs with his name proudly emblazoned.   These were very similar to jugs made for white Mississippi liquor houses.  While individually inexpensive, these containers had to be produced in quantity.   Blowe would have to have been capitalized sufficiently to pay for them. The second jug shown here is a particularly quality product.  He also could indulge in  whimsical containers for his whiskey, such as the pig bottle shown below.

With his business success, Blowe became an leader in black Vicksburg.  A 1908 publication called “The Leading Afro-Americans of Vicksburg, Miss.,” favored him with a photo and an article that keyed on his fraternal connections.  It describes him as an Odd Fellow, a Knight of Pythias, a United Woodman, and United Reformer. He was a officer and member of a number of black Masonic organizations, including the Knights Templar and the Shriners.  But his primary affiliation was as the historian of the Most Worshipful Stringer Lodge F. and A. M., a Masonic order introduced into Mississippi for blacks in 1867.  Blowe, who also had literary gifts, authored a book on the history of the organization that still can be found in libraries.  His picture conveys the image of a man at once serious and genial.

In addition,  Blowe had political ambitions.  For a time he reportedly served as an alderman, a position that seems to have had little power.   Blowe also was selected an alternate delegate to the GOP Convention of 1908, along with a fellow black Vicksburg saloonkeeper named Wesley Crayton.  It is likely that they shared a “Jim Crow” train car to travel to Chicago where the Coliseum awaited, patriotically decorated for the convention.  As McMillan puts it: “Although impotent in the state and local context, Mississippi’s blacks, like Republican functionaries in other parts of the South, took an important part in the nomination of Presidential candidates.

The 1908 convention nominated Secretary of War William Howard Taft of Ohio, who would go on the win the general election.   McMillan goes on to say that black delegates had a disproportionate influence on convention outcomes and “performed their function in a corruption atmosphere.”  Whatever his experience, Blowe could return to Mississippi, where he was largely powerless to affect local affairs,  knowing that the GOP platform that year vowed to “uphold the rights of African-Americans.”

That same year, 1908, Mississippi voters dealt all of the state’s saloons and retail liquor establishments a fatal stroke when they voted a complete ban on alcohol statewide. White and black, all such establishments were forced to shut down.  Blowe’s was among them.

The 1910 census found the Blowe family living with Lulu’s 68-year-old mother at her Vicksburg home.  Jere, still just age 45, was listed as working in the insurance business.  Both Lulu and daughter, Ella, were teaching school.  The rest of their lives are shrouded in time.  The family may be buried in Vicksburg’s Beulah Cemetery, where lie many of the city’s prominent African-American families.  The graveyard has fallen into disrepair, however, and the those restoring it are still in the process of making an inventory of gravestones.

We are left with the heartening memory of a whiskey man whose biographer called “an all around good fellow.”  He spent his life in Mississippi, termed by one author “the darkest section of the South for a colored man,” and did it during the height of the Jim Crow era. Yet when asked, he expressed his pride in the old “Historic City,” of Vicksburg and was recorded as never failing to boast about it.  Nonetheless, Jere Blowe  likely would be pleased to see how things have changed.  For example, a statute has been raised in Vicksburg to the Mississippi black Union soldiers and laborers who entered the city as victors in 1863.

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