Providence riots, 1824, 1831

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The original photograph from my 2005 column on Hardscrabble and Snowtown.

Here is my Feb. 24, 2005, column in the Providence Journal, headlined “Hardscrabble and Snowtown of yore”:

***

HARDSCRABBLE and Snowtown are old Providence neighborhoods that have fallen off the map. In 1824, Hardscrabble was a poor enclave of houses owned or rented mainly by free African-Americans along Olney’s Lane (now Olney Street) and North Main Street. Before blacks moved in, the sparsely populated area was known as Stampers Hill or Addison Hollow. Later, it was called Constitution Hill, and then Lippitt Hill.

Lippitt Hill, the city’s oldest black neighborhood, was razed and its residents were dispersed, in 1962-68, to construct University Heights, an innovative shopping/residential complex designed by America’s first major architect of malls, Victor Gruen.

By 1831, Snowtown had arisen to the west of Hardscrabble, across the Blackstone Canal (the Moshassuck River), beneath the bluff of Smith Hill, possibly right where Waterplace Park and Providence Place are today. It’s hard to know for sure. Snowtown isn’t labeled on old maps, or precisely located in accounts of old history. It appeared and disappeared long before the State House was completed in 1901. By then, Snowtown, not to mention Hardscrabble, had been forgotten by, I daresay, as many citizens of Providence as possible.

Why? Perhaps because they were the sites of two race riots. Their role in bringing about the town of Providence’s incorporation as a city — a step aimed chiefly to strengthen police power — is described in the Winter 1972 issue of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s quarterly, by Brown Prof. Howard Chudacoff and master’s candidate Theodore Hirt.

Quoting from a report of the trial that followed the Oct. 18, 1824, Hardscrabble riot, they write: “[S]ome blacks had tried to ‘maintain the inside walk in their peregrination in town,’ in obvious defiance of racial taboo, and the usual ‘bickerings and hostilities’ ended in a sort of ‘battle royal.’ The following night a large number of whites, incensed by the incident, assembled on [Weybosset] Bridge and ‘after some consultation’ invaded the black section known as Hard-Scrabble ‘which they almost laid in ruins.’ ” The mob of about 50, cheered on by some 100 spectators, pulled down seven houses and heavily damaged four others. Nobody tried to stop them. Only two were convicted, of minor charges.

To “maintain the inside walk” – where a pedestrian was less likely to get slopped by mud from the unpaved streets — was to flout today’s equivalent of keeping to the right on a sidewalk. Street etiquette was complicated by the pecking order of social status, which was loosening as free blacks in Northern states asserted, and abolitionists promoted, their franchise. By 1820, African-Americans in Providence were slowly being freed under Rhode Island’s 1784 phased abolition of slavery. But in 1822, as free black males sought to advance in society, their right to vote (little used, because of intimidation) was abolished by the General Assembly.

In 1824, blacks were one in ten of the city’s population, or about a thousand. All but a handful were free. Many asserted themselves by leaving the households of their employers, to form their own.

Many moved to Hardscrabble, where poor but respectable families, headed by servants, tradesmen and craftsmen, lived next to taverns and bawdyhouses that served a mixed clientel. Genteel whites crusaded against vice, but the town had little power or authority to act. Under cover of this crusade, lower-class whites occasionally took vigilante action against blacks when irritated by, say, their insistence on “maintaining the inside walk.”

I’ve read two reports on the mood of blacks in Providence in the years leading up to the Snowtown riots in 1831. A long paper by Brown undergraduate John Crouch for Professor Chudacoff in 1991 (published as a pamphlet by Ray Rickman’s Cornerstone Books in 1999) describes the appallingly racist coverage by local newspapers of the Hardscrabble riot and its aftermath. And in a 2003 book, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830, John Wood Sweet has a chapter on how the riots fueled mockery of the abolition movement in the North (“De Bobalition of Slabery in de Nited Tate”). Both are unpleasant reading.

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. 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.

These events finally led to a city charter, in 1832. For blacks in Providence, suffrage, at least, has been secured. And today we are all, black and white, safe from mobs, right? Mostly, yes. But racial animosities linger, and whites and blacks still clash, sometimes on sidewalks — hints of an ugly past.So, yes, remember Hardscrabble and Snowtown.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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11 Responses to Providence riots, 1824, 1831

  1. Frank Santo Jr. says:

    Our family lived at 410 North Main St. which was between HARDSCRABBLE & Snowtown from the mid 1940s to 1960… which was called Constitution Hill.
    We were one of 8-10 Black families living in squalid, rat & roach infested, garbage laden, cold water tenant apartments.
    One fire and we would have all perished…
    It was in the middle of Constitution Hill (traffic going up & down the hill) surrounded by barrooms, prostitution, sailors, drugs, and commercial businesses such as Chase Delicatessen, barbershops, Diamond Shoe Store, Royal Typewriter Company, Bonnie Goldberg’s Pharmacy, Sage Manufacturing Company where my father worked for over 40 years.
    A river flowed in back of the tenement house. The river loaded with water rats we as kids watched peering through the wrought iron fire escapes. A dirt road (Bark Street) separated the river from the garbage dump created next to our tenement house at 410 North Main St.
    The city (or landlord) did not provide garbage cans and this dump (and river) was not visible from the North Main Street commercial view so obviously those in charge did not care.
    Tenants were forced to either walk down 4-5 flights to throw out garbage or simply throw garbage out their windows…
    My father insisted I walk down and through a sky less dirt yard (where we sometimes as kids played) surrounded by small kerosene sheds and pickle barrows from Chase Delicatessen.
    We went to segregated (All Black) Benefit Street Elementary School and then to Predominantly all Black Doyle Street School.
    Many of us Black families from back then are still friends and extended families to this day.
    How all of us (Black & Poor Families) survived this experience was a miracle.
    Urban Renewal came through in 1959 when I was 10 years old with promises to possibly move into University Heights…
    Our family (Dad jewelry factory worker, Mom domestic house cleaner, me & 3 younger sisters) were interviewed and being considered for apartments available in the Chad Brown/Admiral Terrace Housing Projects. A white gentleman visited & interviewed us (we were nervous) and a short time afterwards let us know we would be accepted!
    When he left we were happy and immediately packed meager personal belongings for the move to Chad Brown/Admiral Terrace Housing Projects where we found running hot water/showers, front yard green grass, basketball courts, garbage disposal, and new found black extended families & lifetime friendships.
    Some of the families from 410 North Main Street also moved into the housing projects.
    It was in the housing projects where I was introduced to athletics by a Black & White coach that had an impact on our predominately Black Youth Athletic Basketball & Football teams.
    At Chad Brown/Admiral Terrace we also (for the first time) met white families who lived next to or near us that became longtime friends.
    May sound like something out of a Dickens novel but…
    Frank Santos Jr.
    Former City, State, & OIC Employee

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    • Thank you so much, Frank, for the very detailed picture of your neighborhood in Providence. I’m sure it was very difficult growing up in those circumstances. We’ve come a long way since those days, though far from enough. Maybe you saw the article in today’s paper about the Snowtown and Hardscrabble riots and their role in forming the city’s police department. Very interesting. I have written a column and a post about that effort to bring the riots to the attention of more Rhode Islanders. Good luck to them, and congratulations to you for managing to scramble out of the mire.

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  2. Dana says:

    Hi David, very interesting article, thank you. I live on the corner of Doyle and Camp, 103 Doyle Ave also known as 70 Camp St. The house was built in 1880 and I’ve always been intrigued by the history of the home, though I have found little about it. I have heard rumors that it served as a funeral home for 10-15 years or so in the 60’s…perhaps the same funeral home that another reader mentioned from his childhood. I have also read personal testimonies/stories online from residents who were forced out of the community during the “make-over” of Lippitt Hill. They spoke of the community pride in the area, which was lost, when over 300 homes were demolished and they were forced to move back as tenants. In my opinion it’s a very sad story in Providence’s history. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the area.

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    • Yes, Dana, Lippett Hill was nuked the way so many other working (and working class) neighborhoods were nuked during the era of urban renewal. My late friend Elaine Chaika grew up there and had many stories to tell. If you would like to hear or read more, try getting in touch with or googling Ray Rickman. He has been gathering oral histories from people who lived in or knew the area. I’m sure he would be happy to hear from you.

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  3. Pingback: Providence riots, 1824, 1831 — Architecture Here and There – Pedal Powered Anthropology

  4. A Subscriber says:

    My grandfather was born in 1881, on Amy St, and my father, in 1919, on Robinson St – baptized at St Michael’s, on Oxford St. Growing up, we still had many relatives living in three-deckers around Frank and Gay Streets, as that neighborhood crumbled around them . My Dad, being a good Catholic, was always going to this wake or that wake, and oftentimes, they were held somewhere, nearby downtown Providence. Additionally, there Irish social events and fundraisers – known as “times”, for various and sundry persons and/or organizations. (As an example, you might hear someone say “They’re having a ‘time’ for Father McMahon, on Friday, at St Michael’s Social Hall. He’s raising money for the orphans in Limerick”) You get the idea.

    On many occasions, these wakes that my Dad would attend, were at night, and we’d sometimes be piled into the station wagon to ride up with him. Growing up, as we did, a million miles away, in North Kingstown, Providence might just as well have been Mars. Going there was an exotic event.

    During the 1964/65 period, when “Urban Renewal” had destroyed swaths of downtown in order to build I-95, Providence, at dusk and at night, looked just like a grainy black and white film of London, after the Blitz. Our Dad would park on a cobble-stoned side-street, while he “visited” at the funeral home, and we’d sit in the car, in the dark, waiting. It never once crossed our minds to be afraid while we were waiting; the area didn’t have that sort of vibe – it was merely spooky, half-destroyed, and very, very depressing, if you were a kid, then, and didn’t fully understand much about life.

    I have a point in writing, and it’s this: all during those years, we’d heard of a neighborhood, somewhere around downtown Providence, where black people were segregated. It was called “Shoo-Fly” and, apparently, it was one of the areas that was ploughed under by “Urban Renewal”. I never knew, exactly, where it was – and I still don’t. Has it come up in any research that you’re aware of, Dave?

    Thanks, very much, for reprinting this column. You’ve astounded me, once again.

    Like

    • Sub – “Shoo-Fly” is a new one on me. It comes up in online searches for Providence but identifies no specific location. It could be any number of places. Maybe other readers will be more helpful. I will keep my eye open.

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    • Traci says:

      Shoo-fly was at the edge of Olneyville and Federal Hill, near what is now routes 6 and 10.

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  5. Brian Heller says:

    The rear of our house is on Lippet St.

    B

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    • Lippitt Street is named for the Lippitt family, Brian, one of whose houses is at the corner of Angell and Hope, where the CHNA (I think it was) hosted a meeting about Ed Bishop’s hotel proposal. Do you remember Fred Lippitt? Old Providence blueblood who was the “big dipper” compared by Cianci in a mayoral debate to the “little dipper” whose name I don’t quite recall but who recently was chairman of the city’s liquor licensing board. Or vice versa.

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  6. Pingback: Hardscrabble and Snowtown | Architecture Here and There

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