30 October 2011

My Uncle the Bootlegger


by Louis Willis

My uncle, the younger of my mother’s two brothers, nicknamed “Belly,” was a bootlegger. He sold moonshine in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. He bought the moonshine in half gallon jars from the men who made it back in the hills and hollows of East Tennessee and brought it to the city where he sold it by the pint and half pint. To my uncle and the other Black bootleggers, bootlegging was a business, and they considered themselves businessmen, not criminals. 

The police, who admired my uncle for his ability to evade capture when other bootleggers were often caught, gave my uncle the nickname of “Whiskers” because he wore a large beard. He was tall, lean, handsome, medium brown skin and spoke in a low voice, even when angry. I think the fact that, at six feet, two inches, he was the tallest member in our family makes him stand out in my memory. 

I have no direct memory of the family story of how the police used my uncle to test the rookies. Two officers in a patrol car would bring the rookie into the neighborhood, wait until they spotted my uncle, then let the rookie out of the patrol car, and the foot race was on. My uncle never had moonshine or a gun on him, which made me think, in later years, the situation was prearranged. None of the rookies ever caught him because my uncle had the advantage of knowing the neighborhood. For me, the story shows how the White policemen used my uncle like the mechanical rabbit employed to get racing dogs to run. The police, however, respected my uncle and tried to get him to join the force. He refused because he didn’t want to arrest his friends, and especially his brother.

I remember a funny incident involving one of the Black policemen’s  attempt to catch my uncle, not by chasing him, but by outsmarting him, because I saw it happen. Only 3 or 4 Black men were on the city police force. One of them, I’ll call him GV, was a mean SOB and would arrest anyone he thought was breaking the law.

The part of the GV story I know from other family members suggests he didn’t like my uncle and considered him an embarrassment to the Black community. He decided he was the man to catch him. He didn’t know that the Black beat patrolman had warned my grandmother, and she had warned my uncle, who was watching for GV, as was others in the neighborhood. 

Looking across our backyard from our kitchen window, I could see the back of Doll Flats and the outdoor toilets attached to each flat. The doors of the toilets could be locked with latches on the inside and the outside. The toilets could be approached from the north through the space between our house and the house on the east side of ours, and from south through the space between Doll Flats and the back of the flats that were perpendicular to Doll Flats.
On the day the incident, I watched from the kitchen window as GV, who was not in uniform, approached from the south, entered the first toilet, and locked the door. From inside the toilet, you could see the back of our house through the cracks between the door and the door frame. Just before GV entered the toilet, I saw my uncle tiptoeing between Doll Flats and the back of the house next door to ours. He stopped, peeked around the corner of the flats, and saw GV enter the toilet. 

He left, and I next saw him ease around the south corner of the flats and throw the outside latch of the toilet GV was in. He strolled pass the toilet, looked back when he heard GV trying to open the door, smiled, and kept walking.

I never learned how GV got out of the toilet. He was fired from the police force for doing the unthinkable: he started arresting White folks.

My uncle went legit when the county became wet in the late 1960s or early 1970s. He already had a business selling kindling wood. He opened a store from which he sold sodas, candy, cookies, and beer. Strangely, he did not sell whiskey. He died of a heart attack in 1988 after discovering someone had broken into the store. I always thought he died of a broken heart because he believed no one would ever rob him since if anyone wanted something he would give it to them on credit. He was not aware that the new, drug dealing, drug using generation didn’t ask; they took.

10 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Belly the Bootlegger quite a character! I have to confess I peeked at the story two weeks ago and I enjoyed re-reading it as much as the first take.

Fran Rizer said...

Louis, when I saw the title of your article this week, I remembered my own bootlegger uncle and wondered if you were my cousin. My uncle made and sold moonshine, but his name was George, so I don't guess we're kin. I'd like to have seen GV's reaction when he got out of the outhouse.

Janice Law said...

Good column!

Robert Lopresti said...

Louis-

Maybe I missed it, but where was this?

My great-grandfather was a bootlegger during prohibition ( http://criminalbrief.com/?p=8985 ) but that's all I know about it. My wife and I just started watching Ken BUrn's documentary on Prohibition yesterday. Quite amazing stuff.

R.T. Lawton said...

Louis, loved it. Hope you tell more stories like it in the future.

Louis A. Willis said...

Fran,
If your uncle made his moonshine around East Tennessee, it’s possible he might have known some of the bootleggers in Knox, Sevier, or Cocke Counties.

Rob,
This was in Knoxville, TN, which is in Knox County, though the moonshiners came from Sevier, Cocke and other counties in East Tennessee, and I believe some came from Kentucky.

R. T.
I wish I could remember more of the stories I heard, but unfortunately, my long term memory is not very good. I thought the older you get the better your long term memory. My memory sometimes seems to be going in the opposite direction.

Fran Rizer said...

Louis, my uncle was down near Augusta, Georgia, but I did have a sip of Tennessee moonshine from Chattanooga once in my youth.

Velma said...

So, by my count, at least three SleuthSayers admit to bootleggin' relatives.

John Floyd said...

I didn't bother admitting anything. In the South that's just assumed.

Jeff Baker said...

Some of my family were probably customers of a few bootleggers around that time. Later we wound up in the legit liquor industry. :) :) :)