Science Lounging: Speakeasies and Prohibition
A few weeks ago the Blair-Caldwell Library participated in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s program the Science Lounge focusing on the ultra cool, fun and vibrant culture that gave rise to Speakeasies at the historic Savoy at Curtis Park. Guests enjoyed period music, drinks, dancing and a distillery presentation. The library was invited to provide information on prohibition in the Five Points community from the African American perspective. Using the library’s archive we uncovered information on three well known figures with connections to prohibition activities; Omar D. Blair, George Morrison, Sr. and “Daddy” Bruce Randolph.
Omar D. Blair: (1918 – 2004) Tuskegee Airman and the 1st African American president of the Denver School Board
Bootlegger: His family had two apartments growing up; they lived in one and they had a still in the other. They made home brew, gin, bourbon, vodka, scotch all out of the same bottle by burning the sugars for different lengths.
George Morrison, Sr.: (1891-1974) Musician/Composer
Bootlegger: George Jr. reminisced, “Dad made home brew. Once during the night when Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was visiting us, beer started exploding in the cellar. It was a common occurrence, so it amused the family when Bojangles woke everyone up yelling, “What’s that, what’s that!?!”
“Daddy Bruce Randolph: (1900 – 1994) Philanthropist, Restaurateur, and the 1985 Colorado Black Hall of Fame Inductee
Bootlegger: Sold whiskey in coke bottles for 50 cents during prohibition.
Prohibition in Five Points, Colorado
The Five Points Neighborhood and alcohol go back a long way, as early as the development of Five Points as an African American neighborhood. Five Points was initially white with a large German, Irish, and Jewish population. As whites moved to other neighborhoods in Denver, African Americans began to move into the area. By the late 1890s, more African Americans lived in Five Points than any other part of Denver. Five Points became the heart of the black community. People in the community created retail and commercial businesses along Welton Street that helped provide not only jobs, but also education and skills for many African Americans who otherwise would not have been given such opportunities. Many of those established businesses along Welton Street included community gathering places, night clubs or hotels that catered to music lovers and access to alcohol.
Some of those frequented night spots or clubs in Five Points included The Casino Ballroom, The 715, The Minute Spot, The Cosmopolitan Club, The Derby Club (the first black social club in Denver), The Cavaliers, The Voters Club, Rossonian Hotel, Myers Pool Hall and the Five Points Service Club. Before Prohibition, the Welton Street roster of clubs provided easy flow and access to alcohol, music and good times. On the eve of Prohibition (1920-1933), owners of the Welton Street clubs and throughout Denver had to convert to new ways of keeping people enjoying alcohol and making it available to them in a more discreet fashion. During the “dry” years (about 13 years) of Prohibition, some of the Welton Street club owners found creative ways to keep their businesses going, as well as private home owners and individuals that operated speakeasies (illegal, secretive drinking establishments) in their basements or private rooms in their apartments, homes or clubs. African Americans in Five Points like millions of Americans were willing to drink liquor (even the distilled spirits) illegally, which gave rise to “bootlegging” (the illegal production and sale of liquor). A number of well-known individuals in the Five Points community (George Morrison, Sr., Omar Blair’s parents, Bennie Hooper and Elvin Caldwell) took part, in their respective ways, of side-stepping the temperance movement and keeping alcohol flowing by operating stills, speakeasies, or conducting bootlegging activities.
Five Facts You Might Not Know About Prohibition:
- 1) Prohibition lasted 13 years, 10 months and 19 days. The ban on alcohol began in 1920 with the ratification of the Volstead Act (also known as the 18th Amendment), which rendered all intoxicating liquors illegal, and was not repealed until December 5, 1933.
- 2) It was never illegal to drink during Prohibition. The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, the legal measure that included the instructions for enforcing Prohibition never barred the consumption of alcohol - just making it, selling it, and shipping it for mass production (and consumption) – was illegal.
- 3) Thousands of speakeasies were set up all around the United States. New York City alone had about 30,000 speakeasies. Our research did not disclose how many speakeasies were actually established in Five Points, but a number of them did exist during Prohibition usually in the form of after hours clubs. The speakeasy got its name because one had to whisper a code word or name through a slot in a locked door to gain admittance.
- 4) “Bathtub gin” got its name from the fact that alcohol, glycerin and juniper juice was mixed in bottles or jugs too tall to be filled with water from a sink tap, so they were commonly filled under a bathtub tap.
- 5) In Five Points many people made beer and wine at home (homebrew or bathtub gin, scotch, vodka, bourbon) for themselves and friends. Many bootleggers sold their illegal brews to friends and owners of speakeasies in the Five Points community.
Interested in more information on this era of history? Browse the many resources available at the library.
Five Points Neighborhood of Denver, Laura Mauck
Growing up Black in Denver, Billie Arlene Grant
Policy Analysis: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure, Mark Thornton
Five Interesting Facts about Prohibition’s End in 1933
Top 10 Facts about Prohibition
Prohibition (United States History, 1920-1933)
Prohibition Fast Facts
Contributors: Annie Nelson and Hadiya Evans
Thank you! It was such a fun event. I'm so glad the library was invited.
Excellent info as usual Hadiya!
Thank you Josh!
Great article! Loved the content!
I just wanted to let you know that because of this exhibit at the Speakeasy event, I was inspired by the Blair-Caldwell librarians to do more research about "Daddy Bruce" Randolph (found out about his Thanksgiving meal program!), looking up swing dance and 1920's history in Five Points, AND to be a volunteer with the Denver Public Library system. :-) Thanks for this great write-up! Please send my thanks to the nice ladies who ran this booth!
It was our pleasure to participate in such a cool program. It's awesome you were inspired on so many levels. Please drop by the Blair-Caldwell Library anytime for a tour. Thanks again for supporting the Library.
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