Tuesday, May 5, 2009

DC's First Race Riot

Even today, DC is a city of segregation and has certainly had its share of racial violence. The District permitted slavery until April 16, 1862. At its peak there were about 4,000 slaves living and working in DC. One slave was eighteen year old Arthur Bowen, who on one drunken occasion in 1835 put events in motion that would lead to DC’s first race riot.

Bowen was owned by the wealthy widow Anna Thornton, wife of the first Architect of the Capitol, William Thornton. Out drinking late on August 4th, Bowen went home to the Thornton house on the 1300 block of F Street. Seeing an ax by the doorway, he carried the ax up to Anna Thornton’s bedroom and stood at the door, reportedly shouting that he had an equal right to freedom as Ms. Thornton. Scared witless, Anna fled the room. Bowen’s mother grabbed him, urging him to flee in to the night. On the run for four days, Arthur was apprehended on the 8th and taken to the city jail in Judiciary Square. With the Nat Turner Rebellion, in which runaway slaves massacred 60 villagers in 1831, still fresh in the minds of whites, fear of uprising was palpable. An angry mob gathered outside the jail, calling for the hanging of Bowen.

The mob consisted mainly of Irish laborers, known as the “Mechanics,” who believed they had much to lose with slaves and free blacks taking their jobs. District Attorney Francis Scott Key—yes, the “Star Spangled Banner” guy—sought to restore the peace by obtaining an arrest warrant for a white doctor said to be in possession of abolitionist literature. The doctor was placed in jail alongside Arthur Bowen, but the crowds were not appeased. The Marines were called in to defend the prison.

Meanwhile, down at The Epicurean Eating House on 6th and Pennsylvania, all hell was about to break loose. Beverly Snow, the proprietor, was a man of mixed-race who got along well with society and ran a profitable restaurant. Now, he had been accused of using very inappropriate language regarding the wives and daughters of the Mechanics. The mob 300 to 400 strong moved from Judiciary Square over to Snow’s restaurant, where they shattered windows, broke furniture, and consumed mass quantities of whiskey. The Mechanics then directed their rage towards black tenements houses, churches, and schools. A “house of ill fame” was torched near Capitol Hill. The mayor of Washington was forced to organize a local militia of 60 men to restore order.

As quickly as it had erupted, the violence ceased on August 13th. Order was restored, and soon it was business as usual. But what happened to the characters of this episode? Francis Scott Key pressed for the death penalty against Bowen, and it was granted. However, it turns out that Anna Thornton was fond of her slave; she changed her story (Bowen never said anything about freedom and rights at all) and appealed to President Jackson to have Bowen pardoned. Ever partial to widows, Jackson granted the pardon. As for Beverly Snow? He returned to DC just long enough to sell his business, then moved to a place where he declared a man can live free. Canada.

Sources: Jesse J. Holland, Black Men Built the Capitol.

Jefferson Morely, “
The 'Snow Riot',” The Washington Post: February 6, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. "The Epicurean Eating House"!?!? Well, there goes my idea for that restaurant I was going to open.