A massive casino opens in National Harbor. Fairfax creates a civilian review board of police abuse. And D.C.'s mayor meets with President-elect Trump to push the District's case for statehood.
In pre-Civil War Washington D.C., free blacks ran successful businesses despite the continuation of the slave trade around them. In 1835, a drunken slave entered his mistress’ bedroom with an ax, setting in motion events that would lead to the city’s first race riot. We learn about the fascinating, and nearly forgotten, characters involved in the incident and its aftermath.
- Jefferson Morley author, "Snow-storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835” by Jefferson Morley. Copyright © 2012 by Jefferson Morley. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Pretend for a moment that this is "Jeopardy." The answer is he penned the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner." I can practically hear you all shouting at your radios: Who is Francis Scott Key? We know him as the man who wrote what would become America's national anthem. But who was he really?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWell, for eight years, he was D.C.'s district attorney, and he's just one of the colorful characters caught up in Washington's first race riot. Journalist and author Jefferson Morley has brought this often overlooked piece of D.C. in the nation's history to light. He joins us in studio to tell us about it. Jefferson Morley is the Washington correspondent for Salon and the author of "Snow-storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riots of 1835." Jefferson, good to see you again.
MR. JEFFERSON MORLEYThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs reported, you've covered Washington, D.C. for years. When you first came across this story, what struck you about it?
MORLEYI learned in reading some D.C. history that Francis Scott Key had once been the district attorney for the city of Washington, and I thought that was remarkably interesting. And so I went around the newsroom at The Washington Post, where I was working at the time, and I said, did you know that Francis Scott Key was a district attorney? And I must have asked 10 people. Nobody knew. And so I knew that if people didn't know this in the newsroom, it must be news.
NNAMDIDo you know much about Francis Scott Key beyond "The Star-Spangled Banner?" Call us with your questions or with your knowledge at 800-433-8850, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. Washington, D.C. was something of an anomaly in the years before the Civil War. What set it apart from other U.S. cities?
MORLEYWashington was unique in that slavery was actually receding in Washington 30 years before the Civil War. In the census of 1830, for the first time, free blacks outnumbered enslaved blacks in the city. A city of 30,000 people, 12,000 were black, and slightly more than half of those were free. So with the possible exception of New Orleans, there was no city in America like this.
NNAMDIYou know, I was struck by reading a review by Ron Charles of a new book by Stephen Carter, a new novel by Stephen Carter about the impeachment of Abraham Lincoln in which Carter is quoted as saying our shared notion that the entire darkened nation in the middle years of the 19th century was just out of slavery and grindingly poor is the sort of racist nonsense that continues nowadays to provide a peculiar comfort to black and white alike.
NNAMDICertainly in Washington, you had more freed black persons than there were slaves, and at the center of this story is a man we may owe a debt of gratitude for the vibrant dining scene that we now enjoy in the city today. Who was Beverley Snow?
MORLEYBeverley Randolph Snow was an extraordinary character, a kind of African-American Horatio Alger, a self-invented businessman who came out of nowhere. He bought his freedom from a friendly master in Lynchburg, Va. and came to Washington in 1830 to make his fortune. He started out modestly. He opened up a beer stand at the racetrack on the outskirts of town. He followed up with that with an oyster house downtown on 7th Street. Oysters -- the oyster house was like the fast food of the day.
MORLEYThat's where a working man went in, had a little lunch for a nickel and went on his way. But then in 1832, Snow opened his first real accomplishment -- what he had been aiming to do for a long time -- and that was a restaurant. It was called the Epicurean Eating House. It was at the corner of 6th and Pennsylvania Avenue, and it was really Washington's first true restaurant. And every restaurateur in Washington owes a debt to this man, even if they don't know it.
NNAMDIHow was it different, this restaurant, from the inns and the other establishments at the time in Washington?
MORLEYAt the time, a tavern would typically serve a meal usually at 11 in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and there was one item. They served it. You sat down at the -- they put it down in the middle of the table. You reached for it. You served yourself, and you ate. You didn't have a choice. You weren't served. What Snow did was he came along, and he gave you a variety of dishes, served at your table whenever you wanted.
MORLEYHe was -- this was an innovation in Washington. I believe it was the first Washington restaurant. But he did other things, too. He also invented carryout food. He would cook food and deliver it to your boarding house or to your hotel room. So he was a real entrepreneur who pioneered the art of eating in Washington, and we've forgotten who he was.
NNAMDIOur guest is Jefferson Morley, Washington correspondent for Salon, author of "Snow-storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riots of 1835." If you have questions or comments -- what questions do you have about life in the District before the Civil War? You can ask them right here at 800-433-8850. Jefferson, Beverley Snow's life was turned upside down by events set in motion on an August night in 1835. What happened in Anna Thornton's home, and who was Anna Thornton?
MORLEYWell, to get a sense of Washington in 1835, the thing you have to understand is that the anti-slavery movement had come to Washington for the first time in -- around that time. And the American anti-slavery society, which was a New York-based membership group, growing in popularity, began to inundate the city with anti-slavery publications that talked about the cruelties associated with slavery that named specific slave masters as cruel, as breaking up families.
MORLEYThis kind of investigative reporting had never really been done before in Washington, and it kind of created a sensation in the town. And among whites, a lot of people thought that this meant that there was going to be a slave rebellion. At that time, in the summer of 1835, there was a nation -- a story that made headlines nationwide about a slave rebellion in Mississippi that was supposed to take up all the Southern states.
MORLEYAnd so there was -- especially among whites, there was a feeling of being on edge. At that time, Anna Thornton was a respected socialite. She was about 56 years of age. She was a widow. Her husband, William Thornton, had been the architect who designed the U.S. Capitol. She lived on F Street, between 13th and 14th Street, which at that time was a very exclusive residential neighborhood.
MORLEYHer next-door neighbor was former President John Quincy Adams, so a very distinguished lady, with many friends in Washington. She had a slave, a servant who she owned, John Arthur Bowen. He was an 18-year-old boy who had grown up in her house. His mother, Arthur's mother, was Maria Bowen, was Anna Thornton's servant as well. Late on the night of August 4, 1835, Arthur came home.
MORLEYHe'd been arguing. He'd been attending an anti-slavery meeting earlier that day. He'd been drinking. He spent the afternoon drinking in Lafayette Square, which was then called President Square. He came home, and around 1 o'clock in the morning, he stumbled into Mrs. Thornton's bedroom, holding an axe in his hand. And this woke up Mrs. Thornton and his mother who was sleeping in the same room.
MORLEYAnd he was so drunk that he didn't do anything. He just stood there. Well, the women screamed. His mother shooed him out of the house. Anna ran next door to get the neighbors, and everybody -- a crowd gathered in the middle of the night. Arthur ran away. And the word began to spread. Mrs. Thornton had been attacked in her bedroom by a slave with an axe. Now, that really wasn't -- what had happened, but that's the story that spread.
NNAMDIOh, that sentence, I can see, yeah.
MORLEYYeah. And so the newspapers picked up on it the next day. And in this unsettled atmosphere where people were worried about slave rebellion, where anti-slavery literature was circulating freely, this was an explosive revelation. Arthur was arrested a couple of days later. He came home. His -- I think his mother went out and found him and brought him home. The constables arrested him, took him to the jail in Judiciary Square.
MORLEYAnd a crowd, a mob soon gathered there, saying they wanted to lynch him. They thought he was leading a slave rebellion, so they just wanted to kill him on the site. Several hundred white men, maybe even as many as several thousand according to some accounts, are gathered around the jail in Judiciary Square, screaming for the head of Arthur Bowen. So this is what sets off several days of rioting in the city.
NNAMDIWell, do you think that Arthur Bowen's actions were full of ill intent or that he was just misunderstood?
MORLEYI think Arthur wanted his freedom. He was -- he had grown up in a distinguished household. His -- Mrs. Thornton really liked him. Mrs. Thornton's mother was a school teacher. She taught him to read and write, so -- and Arthur started going to -- John Cook was a schoolmaster, and he had a school on 14th and H. And he would have a little what he called a talking society, and he would bring in young black men who were in slavery.
MORLEYAnd he would try and teach them, look, here's how you're going to get to be free. You know, you've got to -- and I'm going to tell you how to do it. Cook was -- had been a shoemaker in Fredericksburg. He came to town, and his lifelong goal was to be a teacher. And so he taught these young men, here's how you get your freedom. You've got to learn to read and write. You can't drink.
MORLEYYou know, you've got to read these newspapers. And so he was pounding it into them, get your freedom. And I think Arthur had that natural aspiration for freedom. He had a little too much to drink. I think he might have been going into, like, confront Mrs. Thornton and say, I want my freedom, to show he was serious.
MORLEYBut Mrs. Thornton always said, he did not intend to hurt me, and that was -- she said that from day one, and that becomes part of -- a big part of the story.
NNAMDISo there are several days of riots. How come the riots came to be named for Snow, Beverley Snow, Snow-storm rather than Arthur Bowen?
MORLEYWell, I think because Beverley Snow was the most successful black man in town, and this riot was not just aimed at one individual but, I think, was more generally aimed at the free black population of Washington whom the whites feared and resented. The 1830s, middle 1830s were an economic hard time. There had been close to a depression in 1834. And this free black population in Washington was competing with the whites for scarce jobs. A lot of these blacks had come off the plantations in Virginia, and they had skills. They were blacksmiths. They were drivers. They were carpenters.
MORLEYThey were cooks. And so in this competition for jobs, the whites resented the blacks' success. They couldn't lynch Arthur Bowen in the jail. The federal troops came down from the Navy yard, surrounded the jail, and the mob couldn't get to him. So that's when the mob took off after Snow and went down the street from city hall, down to his restaurant at 6th and Pennsylvania and trashed the place. And they tried -- and then they tried to get -- they tried to lynch him, too.
NNAMDIWell, four years before, there was Nat Turner's rebellion. Did Nat Turner's rebellion have any influence at all on the Washingtonians of that era?
MORLEYYes, definitely. Nat Turner's rebellion was almost like a 9/11 of its day. It was...
NNAMDIIn Southampton County, Virginia.
MORLEYYes. In southern Virginia, where a band of slaves led by Nat Turner killed about -- between 50 and 60 white people before they themselves were captured and killed. It was a shocking event, and it really galvanized public opinion in the United States to do something about it. And the memory of Southampton was still very fresh four years later in 1835. So that had something to do with the nervousness of the whites in this volatile situation.
NNAMDIWho were the people who gathered in Judiciary Square calling for Bowen to be handed over to them? What kind of work did they do? How did they earn their living?
MORLEYThe newspapers of the day called them mechanics, and mechanics was a -- kind of a general term for any working man. It wasn't necessarily our modern meaning of somebody who works with machines but anyone -- anybody who did manual labor. These were the people who had been brought in to work on paving Pennsylvania Avenue, which had been done for the first time, digging the C&O Canal.
MORLEYThese were the big construction projects that were going on, and these men had been brought in and then often laid off. So a lot of them were out of work. A lot of them were drunk, and they were the ones who had the most to resent and lose from the success of the free blacks. And that's why, when they couldn't get their hands on Arthur, they went after Beverly Snow.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. But we're talking with Jefferson Morley, Washington correspondent for Salon. His book is called, "Snow-storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835." How have you learned about D.C.'s history? What resources have you relied on that you'd recommend to others? Call us at 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Jefferson Morley about a unique part of Washington's history. His book about it is called "Snow-storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riots of 1835." We're taking your questions at 800-433-8850. Do you know much about Francis Scott Key beyond "The Star-Spangled Banner"? Call us with your information or with your questions at 800-433-8850. Jeff, we got a tweet from Elsa, who says, "Francis Scott Key attended what is now St. John's College in Annapolis, Md." Is that correct?
MORLEYThat is true. Key grew up in Northern Maryland outside of Frederick and went to college in Annapolis and read for the law there as well.
NNAMDIA mob is wreaking havoc. The police force, such as it is, is not able to put down the riot. So who emerges from his city hall office to set things right?
MORLEYWell, all the authorities in the city were trying to set things right. Key was almost overwhelmed by the mob at the jail and was only rescued by the Marines coming down from the Navy Yard.
NNAMDIHe is the district attorney.
MORLEYHe is the district attorney. He's the city's chief law enforcement officer. He was not -- it did not distinguish himself during the riot. He was a target of the riot himself, and he cowered in his house on C Street for a while. The city organized a militia, which at least protected the public buildings. But they did not protect the free blacks, you know, during the riots.
NNAMDIAnd so what did Key -- what did Francis Scott Key eventually do?
MORLEYWell, you have to remember who Key was, and I think it's important that people get past the image that they have learned in elementary school of the man who wrote their song -- who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," all of which is true. But Key then went on to a very interesting career in American politics that has almost been completely forgotten. And I think it's important that we remember it.
MORLEYKey was -- he was a modern character in some ways. He became famous for his song in 1814, and he did the Washington thing. He parlayed his celebrity into a lucrative law practice. He was, in a lot of ways, the forerunner of the K Street lawyer, the modern lawyer lobbyist in Washington. He parlayed his celebrity into a lucrative law practice. He parlayed his law practice into political connections. He parlayed his political connections into the job that he wanted, which was district attorney.
MORLEYHe was intensely loyal to President Andrew Jackson, and Jackson rewarded his loyalty with this job. And what Jackson wanted Key to do was enforce the slavery regime in Washington, and Key was a believer that the white man had a constitutional right to own property in people. And he was determined to defend it. So after the riot broke out, which called him to question his own authority, he sought to reestablish the rule of law by doing two things.
MORLEYFirst, he prosecuted Arthur Bowen for the attempted murder of Mrs. Thornton and put him on trial a few months later in December and secured a conviction, which meant that Arthur was on death row.
NNAMDIFacing the death penalty.
MORLEYYes. The other thing that Key did was he prosecuted a white abolitionist, a doctor from New York, who had trunk full of anti-slavery publications in his Georgetown home.
NNAMDIWe'll get to that.
MORLEYAnd this had a -- also had a larger political purpose, which was to show that the Anti-Slavery Movement would not be tolerated in Washington. So Key, you know, Kojo, if you go down to the Francis Scott Key Park down there at 35th and M in Georgetown, there's a lot about Key. And it says -- at one point, it says Key was active in the anti-slavery causes, which is almost completely incorrect. It would be more accurate to say that Francis Scott Key was active in suppressing anti-slavery causes.
NNAMDIDon your headphones because we have a caller, Gary in Washington, D.C., who would like to talk about Francis Scott Key. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARYHello. This is interesting because I told your personnel I was calling from the District of Columbia, and you changed it to Washington, D.C. Of course, at this time, Georgetown and Washington were separate cities in the District of Columbia. And I always thought that Francis Scott Key was associated with the city of Georgetown more than Washington. Was his post as attorney general or district attorney -- was it for the District of Columbia or the city of Washington? Because a lot of times people use those as if they are the exact same thing, and it's not always the case.
MORLEYVery, very good point. In fact, at that time, there were three cities in the District of Columbia: Alexandria, Georgetown and Washington, which were separate municipalities. So Key was only the district attorney for the -- for Washington City, which was the city as we now know it, east of Rock Creek Park, I mean, east of Rock Creek without any Virginia -- any territory in Virginia. So he was the chief law enforcement officer for the city at that time. And while he lived in Georgetown, in 1835, he moved into the city and lived on C Street so that he could be closer to his office.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. And how does Key aim to appease the rioting crowd? Apparently, he thought that Arthur had been reading incendiary publication.
MORLEYYes. Key's legal strategy was to link this act of violence to the Anti-Slavery Movement as a way of discrediting it, so he attempted to do that in the prosecution of Arthur Bowen and also in the prosecution of Reuben Crandall. His idea was that anti -- the Anti-Slavery Movement was seditious and the advocates of -- the opponents of slavery really had no free speech rights according to Key.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk about the trial of Reuben Crandall because, even though the Bowen case was pretty sensational, you say the trial of the aforementioned Reuben Crandall was even more dramatic.
MORLEYWell, Key was trying to make a national political point by doing this. The Anti-Slavery Movement had emerged in 1833 or really 1831 and had grown rapidly. It was -- the Anti-Slavery Movement was very much like the Occupy Wall Street Movement. It kind of came out of nowhere or so that -- so that it appeared to people. It was a radically kind of decentralized and Democratic movement, didn't have a big national hierarchy.
MORLEYAnd the Anti-Slavery Movement brought these ideas to town, to the city for the first time. That's what -- that was what alarmed Key, and that's what Key was aiming to suppress. He really wanted to control anti-slavery feeling in the city.
NNAMDIAnd how did he craft his prosecution of Reuben Crandall?
MORLEYWhat he said was he brought five charges against Crandall, and he said that Crandall was engaged in seditious libel that, by bringing the anti-slavery publications into Washington, he was inciting the slaves to rebel, and this was a violation of the white man's constitutional rights. So his -- the message was not just aimed at the Anti-Slavery Movement in Washington but at the Anti-Slavery Movement nationwide, which was just beginning to gain strength in Congress and was beginning to command attention.
MORLEYAnd while the anti-slavery position was very unpopular, it was -- it itself was growing in popularity. It was a minority view, but it was growing. And so that's what the defenders of slave power were most worried about, was this rapid growth in outspoken anti-slavery sentiment.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with Jefferson Morley about his book, "Snow-storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riots of 1835." What have you learned about D.C.'s history? What questions do you have about life in the District before the Civil War? Do you know much about Francis Scott Key? Do you believe that "The Star-Spangled Banner" should continue to be our national anthem?
NNAMDI800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You have described Francis Scott key as, quoting here, "an able and honest man yet also a menace." What do you mean by that?
MORLEYWell, Key was a -- he was a pious man. He was a philanthropist. He intended to do good, but, in a pinch, in this moment of disorder, he did not have a great Democratic imagination. Rather, he became a defender of the slave system and an adamant one and really to an extreme. When Arthur Bowen went on trial, Mrs. Thornton came to his defense in the courtroom and said he did not intend to hurt me, and he paid no attention to that. After Arthur was sentenced to die, Mrs. Thornton takes up a petition campaign on his behalf.
MORLEYSo she is trying to save the kid who would've killed her, which was quite shocking at the time. That made no impression on Key. So he became very hard. He was very harsh in his attacks on Reuben Crandall who was a very quiet man and not a troublemaker at all. And Key portrayed him as some kind of demon. So it was the passion of the moment, aroused by the Anti-Slavery Movement that caused Key to defend the slave system, and that really made him a menace to liberty in the city of Washington.
NNAMDIIndeed, for a 2005 Washington Post Magazine story, you wrote that the man who defined America as the land of the free and the home of the brave proved to be a determined foe of freedom of speech and a smug advocate of white supremacy. Do you think history has done Key a disservice or a favor by emphasizing his composition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" over his other accomplishments or lack thereof?
MORLEYI think that -- I think it has done him a disservice. I mean, whether you like his record or not, he was a very consequential guy. He was a trusted lieutenant of the president, akin to -- if you think of somebody like Scooter Libby for President Bush or Vernon Jordan for President Clinton, he was, you know, kind of a right-hand man to the president. He was very involved in national politics. That's been totally forgotten. Key was also -- and I think this is -- this really is unjust.
MORLEYKey was also best friends and brother-in-law with a man named Roger Taney, who became the chief justice of the United States and eventually became the author of the Dred Scott decision, which basically legalized slavery nationwide and hastened the coming of the Civil War. Key and Taney rose every step of the way together. In six years, Taney went from being the attorney general of the state of Maryland to being the chief justice of United States. He became the attorney general of the United States.
MORLEYHe became the secretary of Treasury. He became the chief justice. At every step, Francis Scott Key helped him on his way. So I think we can say that Francis Scott Key helped give us the Dred Scott decision in some ways. And that is true, and that should not be forgotten.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Mark in Herndon, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi. I'm reading "Chesapeake" now, which has taken me a number of times to actually get through it, by James Michener. And I'm wondering in that book, a good portion of it has to do it with slavery and early slavery issues and the Quaker opposition to it, et cetera. I'm wondering how much of that novel is based upon fact and other issues that surrounded the early slavery issue if you know the answer to that. Thank you.
MORLEYI have not read "Chesapeake." James Michener, when he did his books, he had usually read widely and thoroughly. But the story of the anti-slavery movement is one that I think has been unjustly neglected. And my book, "Snow-storm in August," really is about what happened when the anti-slavery movement came to Washington, when the fight for liberty was brought to the nation's capital for the first time.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mark. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. How much have you learned about D.C.'s history? Would you like to share some of that with us and tell us about your sources? 800-433-8850. You might think that any woman who awakens to find a man with an axe in her room would want him prosecuted, but not Anna Thornton. Why not?
MORLEYWell, you have to remember that a very important factor was that Arthur's mother, Maria Bowen, had been Anna's servant for her whole life. And they were very devoted to each other. They really liked each other. They bickered and fought at times, but that was probably the strongest reason. But also, as I say in the book, it is also possible that Arthur was, in fact, the son of her late husband, and this...
NNAMDIYes. We know how those things went.
MORLEYYes. This was not uncommon at the time. Maria Bowen had been the property of the -- of William Thornton. She had grown up in that house as well. And so there's no direct evidence of that, but it is possible. She clearly had strong feelings for Arthur. She really liked him. She talked about him a lot when she was trying to save his life. She appealed to President Jackson, to Vice President Van Buren, to her friends.
MORLEYAnd in those appeals, she always talked about how good Arthur was and how much she liked him. And she really looked at this as a matter of -- that he had been drinking and he made a mistake. She did not fear him, and she did not fear having him in her house.
NNAMDIWell, she not only did not want him executed. You write that ultimately, quoting here, "She had not only saved Arthur Bowen's life. She had, with her own stubborn love, changed the mood of the city by changing how they saw Arthur."
MORLEYYes. Well, when the -- obviously, when the story first happened, the city was sensationalized, and the crowds gathered and all that. Six months later, after Arthur had been convicted and Mrs. Thornton had gone public, people -- public opinion began to change. One thing you have to remember is, you know, capital punishment was not popular at this time. Washington had not executed -- in the 1830s, Washington had not executed anyone for at least 10 years, and the idea that they were going to...
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, I read that you said in 1828, a white man who murdered a neighbor, whose son had stolen some blackberries from his garden, was sentenced to die and was hung in Alexandria.
MORLEYYes. And this was a very bad man who nobody liked, and people didn't feel too bad about executing him. But the case of Arthur was much more ambiguous. And Mrs. Thornton's appeals became known around town. She was going to all of her neighbors and -- including, you know, friends of the president and senators, and she was enlisting. And so, as people began to learn the story, there was really a lot of sympathy for him.
MORLEYAnd Arthur, when he is on death row in Judiciary Square, even writes a poem about his faith, which is published in the newspaper. So this was a big human interest story. And Mrs. Thornton, by coming out trying to save Arthur's life, really commanded a lot of respect. And by the time this was happening, a lot of people were saying, she's right. This boy should not be punished for this.
NNAMDIOn to Robert in Frederick, Md. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTYes. Thank you, Kojo. I wanted to ask the author the question whether or not -- what his opinion is or what he can -- about -- a response to the question of is it fair to judge people from such great historical distances we are now from the events he describes and, you know, placing them kind of in the context of the way the world is now. And is that really fair?
ROBERTAlso, may I ask one other quick thing?
ROBERTAlso, he made the remark about the laborers or mechanics that were working, kind of very disparaging remark that they were all drunks and, you know, they were threatened by blacks. Is it not true that these people actually were immigrants themselves and many of them extremely poor and struggling to survive at that time? And that's all I have to say. Thanks for letting me on.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Robert.
MORLEYThank you, Robert. Yeah. You know, judging people by today's standards, that's something that I wrestled a lot with and in writing this book because I wanted it to -- I wanted you to see these people as they were seen at the time so that they were living not in our rearview mirror, but living and acting as they did at that time. And I don't think that it's unfair to judge Key by -- I mean, I don't think that I judge Key by today's standards because, at the time, there were plenty of people in Washington who were opposed to slavery.
MORLEYThere were plenty of people who said slavery was wrong. And so that was not a view that is imposed on us from now. This was one that was raised by people at the time in newspapers, in political rallies and in discussion. So I tried to -- I tried very much to judge Key by the standards of his day.
NNAMDIAnd I guess, by pointing out that the mechanics were immigrants, he was saying that they were, I guess, of working class...
MORLEYYes. And I have a lot of sympathy for the mechanics. They were immigrants. A lot of them were recruited in ports in Europe, in Germany and Ireland, primarily, brought to the United States with promises of great wages, which were usually disappointed. And I didn't say that they were drunk all the time. But at the time that they were trying to lynch Arthur Bowen, the newspaper accounts of the day made clear that many of them were drunk and that people lamented this and decried this. So in the heat of the moment, yes, they were drinking heavily.
NNAMDIAnd we got a tweet from Taylor, who says, "This story is deep, sounds like there was some kind of temperance movement going on as well. Was there? And what role did it play if so?"
MORLEYThere was a temperance movement at the time precisely because there was so much drinking, and there were movements to kind of control that and to create better behavior by limiting one's drinking. John Cook, the schoolteacher who taught the black children at a school on 14th Street, was a big temperance man and emphasized this. This was a strong reform movement at the time, which often worked parallel to the anti-slavery movement. These were both new reform movements that came along. Here's how we need to improve society, kind of idealistic movements of the day.
NNAMDIIf you've already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850. Do you know much about Francis Scott Key beyond the "Star-Spangled Banner?" Have you heard this story before? What have you heard about it? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Jefferson Morley, author of the book "Snow-storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riots of 1835." Here is Marco in Frederick, Md. Hi, Marco.
MARCOHow are you doing, Kojo? How are you doing, Mr. Morley?
MARCOGreat show. Great topic as well. I remember reading something about the story a few years back in The Washington Post magazine and found it very interesting. I think that's where I read it in.
NNAMDIYup, it was.
MARCOAnd I was -- my son had to do something in school to write a paper on something, and I couldn't find anything about this. Again, I mean, even though Lionel was looking forward, I couldn't remember all those little nuances and details about it. He's 14, and I was wondering if that's a story that I can -- a book that I can get him for some summer reading.
MORLEY"Snow-storm in August" is on sale in bookstores now. And if you send in your email, I'll send you a copy of that magazine article that's a short version that your son could use for his school paper.
NNAMDIFrom The Washington Post magazine. I think it was in 2005. Jeff Morley himself...
NNAMDI...wrote that article. I'm going to put you on hold, Marco, so you can pass on your email address, and we'll make sure that Jeff gets it to you. But his call raises an important point. This story is full of drama, full of intriguing characters. Why has it largely been forgotten?
MORLEYWell, patriotism is a way of forgetting sometimes, and we tell our -- history is the story we tell ourselves to reassure ourselves about -- you know, that things are good and things are explicable and we know where we came from. And this story has been forgotten because there were shameful aspects to it. Beverly Snow, you know, was unjustly attacked, and even white people knew that. Even white people who didn't like him knew that the mob had no reason to go after Beverly Snow.
MORLEYThis -- and the fact that this event was called the snowstorm, you know, this wasn't -- they were talking about Arthur Bowen here. This was the snowstorm. Beverly Snow had a singular personality, a very outgoing, clever man, charmed and conquered Washington, white Washington, white society, with his restaurant, which was very popular with senators and congressmen. And this was shocking to people that he enjoyed this success, and it was shameful that he was hounded in the way he was. So I think that that's a reason why we've chosen not to remember it.
NNAMDIWhat resources did you have to use to unearth the details? And there's quite a lot of that in this book. Where did you find them?
MORLEYWell, in some ways, Washington was a better city then than it is now. For example, it had four newspapers of varying political stripe. So these newspapers all contained accounts, coming from different points of view, but they gave you -- they gave me a feel for what it was like. I also used property records, court records, which I found at the National Archives, including handwritten indictments from Francis Scott Key, F. S. Key, esquire.
MORLEYAnd there I was handling those in the National Archives. So this history is there, but we don't want to remember that the anti-slavery movement was a very radical challenge to the American order in the 1830s. And we forget how radical it was, and I think we downplay it because it's -- it might be disturbing to us.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. Here is Carina in North Potomac, Md. Carina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARINAHi. Thanks. This is a very interesting conversation. My question is about the atmosphere of Washington at the time and the idea that there were a lot of free blacks and slaves living in the same place, like...
CARINA...living in the same area. Like, what was that like? Did the groups interact...
MORLEYWell, yes. Yes, they did interact. And I think this was perhaps the most surprising thing that I came to realize. If you think about -- if you had said to me before I started studying this town, you know, Washington in the 1830s, I would have thought, well, it was probably, you know, kind of a village, sleepy, swampy, hot weather, slavery, plantation. You know, those kinds of images would have come to my mind. And, in fact, I realized that most of what I knew about Washington at that time was completely wrong. Washington was not a village. It was a city of 30,000 people.
MORLEYSo it had an urban core, especially when Congress was in session. It was a busy bustling place. It had tourists. It had lobbyists. It was like Washington today, in some respects. You have this image -- slave power was unchallenged. No. There were black and white people agitating against slavery right on the streets of Washington. Ben Lundy was a white man who came to town, had a newspaper called The Genius of Universal Emancipation, and he drove Francis Scott Key nuts with his hardheaded reporting about the abuse of black people in the District.
MORLEYSo it wasn't -- this wasn't a plantation. It wasn't slave power. It was a fight. And the black people were fighting for their freedom. And since there were a lot of them, 6,000 at least by 1830, you know, this was taken seriously, and it -- the mood of the city was surprisingly integrated. People will find it hard to believe, but Washington in 1835 was more racially integrated than it is today. There were not black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods then. Blacks and whites, free and slave, lived in and amongst each other.
MORLEYAnd the situation of slavery was -- for individual slaves, was quite different than our stereotypical image of plantation slavery. Mrs. Thornton, for example, would hire out her slaves, so the men who she owned would go to work -- one went to work in a quarry up on the Potomac and blasting rocks. He would get paid $7 a month, and she would receive that money. But that's -- those slaves, you know, they had control of their own time. They, you know, they would go off and do what they want. They were not confined.
MORLEYOther slaves -- she had another slave, a handyman who really kind of ran her household, a man named George Plant who was her driver and carpenter and mechanic. He was her property, her slave. But every night, he went home to his house in Georgetown where his wife who was free and his children who were free. So he was a slave who commuted. So the situation of slavery in Washington at this time was very fluid and very different than our image of plantation slavery.
MORLEYAnd so it was in this atmosphere where enslaved blacks could say, hey, look, that guy got his freedom. He's making money. He's got his own house. He's got his own store. So aspirations were very high, and I think it was the collision of white nervousness and black aspiration that creates this volatile situation. But uniquely in America, Washington was a good place for a free black person to be in the 1830s.
NNAMDICarina, thank you very much for your call. We -- Paul from Falls Church, Va. called, couldn't stay on the line. But he wanted to mention a book that he found educational and interesting called "Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828-1865." That book again, "Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828-1865." And we've also posted a link on our website, kojoshow.org, to the article that Jefferson Morley wrote in The Washington Post magazine in 2005.
NNAMDIJeff, you may have already answered this question. We got an email from Will, who said, "When you look at pictures of the White House or unfinished Capitol after the War of 1812, you see a very rural background. How developed or large was the city at the point in time you're discussing? You're talking about a city of 30,000 people. How developed was it?"
MORLEYYeah. The city was concentrated along Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. There were settlements up on Capitol Hill around what was called Capitol Square. There were settlements around the Navy Yard, which is where the Navy Yard is, and there were also houses in the area that's now called Foggy Bottom. But the city was pretty much restricted to that area. And so, yes, you didn't have to go far to reach the countryside.
MORLEYIn fact, the present day U Street, Florida Avenue, at that time, was called Boundary Street, and that was the northernmost boundary of the city. Outside of that was Washington County. And people lived outside of that line up on where is now Meridian Hill Park. That's where the racetrack was. That was the outskirts of town. You left town, you went up the hill, and you'd go see the horse races up there. The Columbian College was up there. That was the predecessor of what is now George Washington University.
MORLEYSo that area was called College Hill. So there were farms and some residences outside of the city, but most of the city was downtown. And along Pennsylvania Avenue, it was a real city. There were big hotels, taxis. The street had been paved for the first time in 1835. So it was really beginning to take on the look of a city by the 1830s.
NNAMDIUnfortunately, D.C.'s first race riot was not its last. What similarities, if any, do you see in the snowstorm and later riots that rocked the city in 1919 and then, of course, again in 1968?
MORLEYThat's a very good question, and I'm hoping to go on to write another book about the race riot of 1919. It's interesting that the riot of 1919 was a little bit different. When we talk about race riots today, we tend to have this image, based on 1968, of black people, you know, destroying property and killing people and all of that. But for most of American history, a race riot was white people attacking black people, and that's what happened in 1919. And you had soldiers who were being demobilized from World War I, white and black.
MORLEYAnd reports in the news media about a conflict between a black man and a white woman that was very similar in 1919 to 1835, set off these whites attacking blacks. The difference between 1919 and 1835 was, in 1835, the free blacks really had no choice but to run and to hide, you know, or to go see relatives in the country and just lay low. In 1919, you had these black soldiers who'd come back from Europe. They had lived in France where, you know, race wasn't a big issue. They had fought for their country.
MORLEYThey were very proud of that, and they were determined to stand up for their rights. So in 1919, 1919 was less of a race riot than a race war in which you had bands of -- roving bands of blacks and whites attacking each other throughout the downtown Washington area. And this rioting takes place on the same streets as it took place in 1835. And then in 1968, you have a different dynamic altogether where it is the black people who are on the offensive and who destroyed property. So three different, you know, incidents of racial disorder similar in some ways but also different.
NNAMDISophia writes, "What most people don't bother to ask is, why was Francis Scott Key in Baltimore in the first place when he wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner?" The answer is that he had been hired by the vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church in Upper Marlborough, Md. to negotiate the freedom of Dr. William Beanes, the senior warden, after he had a run-in with British soldiers on their way to Washington.
NNAMDI"There are conflicting stories about this run-in, but the trinity Church built by the Presbyterians sold to the Episcopalians, who continue to hold services there -- the original building burned in the 1840s and was rebuilt by the congregation, which just celebrated its 200th anniversary -- is very proud of its role in the writing of the national anthem but is mostly forgotten." Know anything about that at all?
MORLEYThe story is exactly accurate. Key was trying to secure the freedom of Dr. Beanes, who was being held on a ship in Baltimore Harbor by the British forces who were bombarding Fort McHenry. When Key got there, the British said, well, you can't have your freedom. You're going to have to stay here with them while we bombard this place. And that was the night of Sept. 14. And in the morning, when the flag was still there, Key wrote his anthem.
NNAMDIJefferson Morley, he is the author of "Snow-storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riots of 1835," a fascinating story. Thank you for writing it.
MORLEYThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
From paid family leave to Mayor Bowser's meeting with President-Elect Trump, it's your turn to share your opinion on-air.
On opening day of the MGM casino and resort, Kojo talks with the Prince George's County police chief about what residents and commuters can expect in and around this $1.4 billion venue.
For D.C. based author and illustrator Juana Medina, learning English in her native Columbia was a requirement she resisted as a child, yet appreciated later as an adult.