As America celebrates its 237th birthday, it is hard to imagine the nation’s capital in its infancy, much less as a Southern town that, 20 years before the Civil War, could count more free Blacks than slaves among its 20,000 residents. But that’s the setting for A Snow Storm in August, a riveting account of the 1835 race riot in Washington, D.C. and its aftermath.
The story centers on the pivotal role of ex-slave Beverly Snow, an ambitious, resourceful restaurateur when race-inspired violence gripped the then-mud caked capital city that was swaddled in immorality and drunkenness.
At the time, Whites were insecure about --and threatened by –the swelling ranks of free, Black, residents, many of them ex-slaves, in a town of 20,000 inhabitants in which slave markets still lined the two-mile route connecting the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
So when, on a hot August night, drunken slave Arthur Bowen, 18, was found in the bedroom of his owner Anna Thornton just a few blocks away from the White House, wielding an axe, it is easy to understand what fueled D.C.’s first race riot.
After all, just four years earlier, Nat Turner had, 180 miles south of Washington in Southampton County, Va., led a rebellion by a band of runaway slaves that resulted in the axe deaths of at least 50 white people before the rebels were rounded up and hanged by local authorities.
But that’s not the only reason to pick up Jefferson Morley’s extraordinary narrative of life in Washington during a period that could be labeled “Founding Fathers Behaving Badly.” There is the account of Francis Scott Key, author of the lines “…land of the free and the home of the brave…,” that, applied to the melody of an English drinking song, made up the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Key, President Andrew Jackson’s nominee as Washington’s District Attorney, argued in favor of slavery and defended against an assault charge former congressman and future Tennessee governor and Texas president Sam Houston who pummeled a sitting member of the House of Representatives on a Washington street.
Key prosecuted Bowen for attempted murder after the slave fled from the boudoir of Anna Thornton that hot August night, just ahead of a mob that then turned on Beverly Snow, the ex-slave from Lynchburg whose affable nature, culinary skills and good looks were envied by many in Washington, where he had established a thriving restaurant business.
But Key also fought the good fight against the mob of drunken immigrants who wanted to lynch Bowen but, turned aside by a contingent of Marines from the Navy Yard, turned their blood lust onto Snow. Key’s approach is in contrast to his reputation as a White supremacist.
White supremacist Henry Clay also plays a role in the animus against Blacks. Morley writes: “While the supporters of colonization prided themselves on their humanitarianism toward Negroes, theirs was a benevolence wrapped in a prejudice that Henry Clay voiced as well as any man. Clay especially reviled those Africans in America who had managed to gain their legal freedom. “Of all classes of our population, the most vicious is that of the free colored,” Clay liked to say. “Contaminated themselves, they extend their vices to all around them.”
The hatred of Blacks was linked to, but not limited to, their impact on wages and to the belief that Blacks were inferior to Whites. But Beverly Snow believed that the future for Blacks in Washington was bright.
“The capital beckoned not as a promised land but as a refuge, a haven where a colored man just might have room enough to prove himself,” Morley writes. It was a vision that he was unable to realize until after escaping a mob and winding up in Toronto, Ontario years later.