Sunday, December 27, 2015

My Year In Books: Mechanicsville

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. This is one of two histories dealing with periods that don't get a lot of breathing room.]

Snow-Storm in August by Jefferson Morley, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2012
Provenance: Half-Price Books.

Growing up in the 60s, a race riot was understood to be a riot by a minority group and usually confined to poorer neighborhoods like Watts and Harlem. However, there were earlier incarnations where a race riot involved mobs of the majority population rampaging against minority groups, resulting in destruction of property and deaths. The particular riot of this book took place in the heart of our nation's capital, and involved a slave with an axe, the writer of the Star Spangled Banner, President Andrew Jackson, and Washington's first restaurateur, a freed black man names Beverly Snow.

American History is relatively quiet in this era, after the War of 1812 and in the long run-up to the Civil War. This was an era when Washington City (then a component of the larger District of Columbia - they are now one and the same) was becoming a center of power, and with it an infusion of new ideas into city with Southern attitudes, attitudes which included catering to and protecting slavery. Into this city came Beverly Snow, a former slave who established the Epicurian Eating House, which was the city's first true restaurant. Blocks from the Capitol, the Epicurian became a hub for meeting and dining, and Snow established himself both for his cooking and for his talent for self-promotion, posting adverts when he got something particularly interesting on his menu.

Also in Washington was Arthur Bowen, slave to Anna Thornton, herself the widow of the designer of the U S Capitol. Drunk one evening, Bowen entered the house with an axe under his arm and bellowed at the inhabitants. The news of the encounter spread and quickly blew up into a full fledged race riot, where white mobs of "mechanics" (laborers, often poor and unemployed, often Irish or German), fearing this as the first sign of a general insurrection by the black population, proceeded to attack black men and pillage the businesses of free blacks. Snow was one such target, on the weak excuse that he might have disparaged a white woman. Snow's business was destroyed, and he eluded the mob and got out of town, while Bowen himself was locked up for trial.

And prosecuting that trial was Washington District Attorney Francis Scott Key, of Star Spangled Banner fame, who sought the death penalty for Bowen, But his prosecution was thwarted in part by Mrs. Thornton, who pleaded for the life of her slave first within the the system, and then with Andrew Jackson himself. Jackson, while sympathetic with the mechanics and was pro-slavery, would not abide mobs in the streets of Washington threatening the rule of law and dictating terms to his officials.

Moreley spins out the tale, trying to frame the place and the era. This was a Washington that was trying to emerge as the capital, when the power of the Federal government was still under debate. This was also a Washington infused with pro-slavery attitudes, such that abolitionist newspapermen was rousted out of town with the blessing of the government, and freed black men and women lived there at the forbearance of a white population that could at any time come after them. Snow and Bowen never cross paths, so far as can be reported, but both were swept up in the storm that rolled through Washington City that August, and provides one more set of tales in our history.

More later,