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.