Inside the New American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, GA: Speaking Easy With Museum Manager Kayla Black

Mollee D. Harper

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

Georgia CEO presents this special profile on Savannah’s new American Prohibition Museum through our one-on-one with Museum Manager Kayla Black. We learn how Historic Tours of America, Inc. settled on Savannah for its rich history and unique drinking culture to host the nation’s new prohibition exhibit that first opened its doors in May 2017. Black highlights the many eras and important historical events surrounding prohibition in our country that guests of the museum can learn, as well as the appeal of their authentic speakeasy bar that draws in its own crowd. Black gives us incite into the museum’s early success, having already drawn in 10,000 guests in its fourth month of business.

The American Prohibition Museum is located at 209 W. St. Julian Street in Savannah, GA. It is owned and operated by Historic Tours of America, Inc. - the largest privately-owned heritage tourism company in the U.S. in operation since the early 1970s. The American Prohibition Museum features 6000 sq ft consisting of 13 different galleries, four different vintage cars, a functioning and fully stocked speakeasy, and theatre. Guests of the museum experience significant eras in American history surrounding prohibition including: The Temperance Movement, Carry Nation, Southern Rum Runners, Moonshine Making, Flapper Craze, Crime & Gangsters, Model T, Speakeasies Rise and The Great Repeal.

Black shared her background, “I started my career as a conductor with Old Town Trolley Tours in 2013. I had gone to school and got my master’s degree in Public History. That’s an advanced history degree for the application of history to real life that prepares you to work for museums and National Parks. I knew I wanted to work in the industry, so OTT has really worked out well for me. When other folks tell me, they can’t drive such a large vehicle I always tell them ‘If I can drive a trolley, you can drive a trolley’.”

She continued, “I went to school in Pennsylvania. That’s where I’m from. I came to Savannah on vacation back in 2010 and loved it. I moved here 6 months later and have been here for 7 years. I love Savannah and consider myself a local now. Every once in a while a ‘yall’ even falls out of my mouth. The northern still comes out of me too. When I go to Tybee Island, I say ‘I’m going to the shore’ and people don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Black described, “Historic Tours of America is the parent company of the American Prohibition Museum. The museum is a subsidiary of the Old Town Trolley Tours who operate all over the country, including hosting the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum in MA, historic tours in Washington DC, Key West, FL, San Diego, CA among others.”

“Historic Tours of America is the Nation’s Storyteller. Several years ago, they came up with the idea of building a museum about Prohibition, and settled on Savannah. One of the main reasons is because we have modern drinking culture here including an open cup policy. Savannah during Prohibition was also a hot spot for smuggling liquor because of its location on the coast, and had its own starring role in prohibition.”

Black offered details about Savannah’s prohibition history. She said, “We cover everything here from the time Oglethorpe asked King George to pass a formal decree against strong liquors in the colony, to our connections with Al Capone. Capone had a local man who would chop cars for him and repair cars that were damaged by the police during their illegal alcohol runs in Savannah.”

“While the museum is located in Savannah, it is really is an American Prohibition Museum. So, we focus on the national issues surrounding prohibition. The museum covers the hits like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, as well as the flapper culture and speakeasies in NYC like the Cotton Club. This was an important time for the women’s movement- the first time women wore shorter dresses and cut their hair short.”

She continued, “The ‘dry issue’ came to a head after the civil war, when it became a hot button issue in politics. It really backfired on everyone. A lot of people don’t realize that the battle to get prohibition passed was as big as the battle to get it repealed. We cover all of those details of that history in our museum.”

“We built the museum for two years, it was a long process. We were concerned that we might open and be in limbo for a little while getting the word out. But, we opened the doors in May 2017, and are all flabbergasted by how popular we are already. Last month, we had nearly 10,000 people come through the museum. It doesn’t hurt that we have a speakeasy bar in the middle of the museum.”

Black offered, “Our speakeasy is such a unique place with such a good vibe to it, we want it to be available to people to use privately as well. We are cultivating an educational drinking culture here which includes cocktail classes. Drinking is fun but, it’s great to learn history too, including where the cocktail comes from and how they were named, and more.”

“We’ve only been open for four months now, but we want to let everyone know we exist. We are here and we are a class act. We are excited to share what we have. We are the newest, brightest, most fun thing you can do in Savannah.”

Black continued enthusiastically, “It is a self-guided tour. Guests should expect to spend around an hour to an hour and a half in the space. I have had people spend several hours because there is so much to take in. We do have group tour opportunities available, as well as the option for private events in the Speakeasy. So if someone wants to book a party or private cocktail class here, those options are available."

“Many of our guests come to us through the Old Town Trolley- if you book a trolley ride with them, you can purchase museum tickets for a discounted price. Their entire tour takes about an hour and a half, and drops you off at 15 different locations around Savannah, including River Street, Forsyth Park, and City Market where the museum is located. You can ride the trolley all day long, take advantage of their free parking, and get to see all of Savannah including the Historic, Victorian, and Colonial Districts.”

“I really want to encourage folks to come and experience this museum. It’s hard to pass something off as new in an old town without it feeling like it doesn’t belong here. I really feel like the American Prohibition Museum is the perfect balance of something new in a town so rich in history. It may be something that people aren’t necessarily expecting, but once they experience it they feel like the museum belongs here.”

Kayla Black has served as Museum Manager at the American Prohibition Museum since April 2016. She has been with Historic Tours of America since 2013, where she started as a Conductor and then Training Officer. Along the way, Black worked as a curator for her interpretation internship at Thomas T. Taber Museum, and as an Education Coordinator for The State Museum of Pennsylvania before that. Black received bachelor degrees in History and Art History from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. She received her master’s degree in Public/Applied History from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.