Hardscrabble in 1824 was a poor hamlet of respectable families headed mostly by free black tradesmen, craftsmen and servants in the town of Providence. Blacks and others along Olney Lane (now Olney Street) lived cheek by jowl, however, with prostitutes, gamblers and others of low repute on the edges of society. On Oct. 18, an altercation arose over the right of precedence on local sidewalks, leading to an attack by a mob of tough whites on Hardscrabble that left seven houses demolished and four others damaged, but no deaths. The riot occurred two years after black suffrage (passed in 1784 and already eroded by intimidation) had been abolished by the Rhode Island General Assembly.
Many residents of Hardscrabble moved to the marshy land on the north edge of the Cove, beneath the bluff upon which the new Rhode Island State House would be opened in 1901. The settlement came to be known as Snowtown, which assumed many of Hardscrabble’s desultory characteristics and even suffered its own riot in 1831.
The following passage from my Feb. 24, 2005, column “Hardscrabble and Snowtown of yore” was taken from sources of the period, including the newly founded Providence Journal (my old employer), and I make no claim for its accuracy, but it reflects the story handed down since by established interests, whose characteristics are part of the discussion now arising about the lives of blacks in old Providence.
The Snowtown riots, on Sept. 21-24, 1831, were sparked by a saloon brawl. A white sailor was shot by a black; a mob then sacked houses on Olney’s Lane [that is, Hardscrabble]. The next day, it pulled down more houses. On the third day, the militia maintained calm. On the fourth, a thousand rioters crossed the Moshassuck to attack Snowtown, almost overwhelming the 140 members of the First Light Infantry. After rioters ignored warnings from the sheriff and Gov. Lemuel Arnold, the militia fired first into the air, with no effect, and then into the mob, killing four whites.
Most citizens of Providence today have never heard of Snowtown or Hardscrabble, or either of the two riots. This important interlude amid the growth of New England abolitionist sentiment in the run-up to the Civil War has dropped off the historical map around here. Some people are trying to fix that.
Thursday evening, at the Congdon Street Baptist Church on the East Side of Providence, I sat in on a meeting convened by associates of the State House Restoration Society. They were mostly young historians, art and design professionals and students eager to revive the memory of the village of Snowtown. It’s going to be a tough job, but advocates for a place harboring dens of iniquity from prostitution to gambling in a mixture of skin colors two centuries ago already know that.
The meeting followed by just a month the display of artifacts at the old State House from an archaeological dig of the Snowtown site in 1981. These items have been recatalogued by Heather Olson, of Public Archeaology Laboratory, in Pawtucket. Olson showed some of the dig’s 148,000 artifacts, mostly household items, some quite fancy given the status of the hamlet. She explained the difficult history of Snowtown. The restoration society and its friends are building on her work, and hope to draw other organizations into the rememorization for Snowtown.
To be successful at generating more institutional interest, the group might want to consider officially expanding the scope of the story beyond Snowtown to include Hardscrabble, whose existence and whose riot came first. Although what had been Snowtown is populated, in daytime, mostly by the people’s representatives and their offices, that community’s interest may well be better engaged if they hear from the current population of what was once Hardscrabble.
The neighborhood of Mount Hope takes in the vicinity of Olney Lane to North Main to Hope Street. University Heights, at the corner of Olney and North Main, designed by the nation’s leading midcentury architect of shopping centers, was an urban renewal project that displaced hundreds of families in the Lippitt Hill district of Mount Hope, during the 1960s, pulling down their homes with much more efficiency and perhaps more brutality than the rioters of 1824 and 1831.
Activist and bookman Ray Rickman has already been gathering their stories. He and other local community reservoirs of knowledge and interest – such as the Rhode Island Historical Society – can more effectively bear witness to lost history if the comingling of memories representing the ghosts of Snowtown, Hardscrabble and Lippitt Hill can all be given voice.
(A lengthy essay by Washington lawyer John Crouch, “Providence Newspapers and the Racist Riots of 1824 and 1831,” has fascinating quotations and details about local newspapers’ coverage of the two riots.)
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