13.1.12

My Search for Hard Scrabble and Snow Town

13 January 1891 - Providence, Rhode Island

If you will recall my last trip was to Liverpool, which had made its early fortune in the slave trade. Providence is its American counterpart, once being the center of North America’s African trade. And like Liverpool it acquired a large African population, first as slaves, then as freedmen.

Providence has one of the oldest black communities in America. In the 18th century they made up over 10% of the population. Now it’s down to 2%. Immigrants from Europe have skewed those numbers. However, there has been immigrants of African descent from the southern states and Cape Verde, hoping to find work in the factories, on the wharfs or as domestics servants.

I know it’s hard for you folks back in the 27th century to understand, but society in the 19th century was divided by class and “race.” Not only did the people of the 19th century believe there were multiple races, they believed some ethnic groups to be sub-human--a separate species! They judged a man by the color of his skin. My own theory is that Europeans knew it was evil to enslave their fellow man, so they convinced themselves that Africans somehow were not human and therefore exempt. Completely insane, I know. But then they believed people lived on Mars, too.

By the year 1824, there were about a thousand African-Americans living in Providence, mostly in an area of town called “Hard Scrabble.” It was the poorest neighborhood with the cheapest rent. Few African-Americans could get descent jobs then, but had to take those no one else wanted. Some would rent rooms, buy some rum, and set up temporary pubs or Bawdy Houses to entertain sailors in port. Things could get raucous at times in these establishments. Unfortunately, it was one of the only means of making any money with limited resources.

William Spears, editor and sole writer for a second-rate newspaper, the Providence Beacon, wrote an abusive editorial on the Hard Scrabble neighborhood 16 October 1824. Not the first people he had ever attacked. Spears was constantly getting into libel suits with his malicious gossip and fabricated stories. This time however he started a violent event.

Two days after the editorial, a race riot broke out. In the 19th century a “race riot” meant whites attacking blacks for no good reason. A mob descended on Hard Scramble and began tearing down 20 homes. Only four rioters were arrested and only one found guilty. Spears congratulated the vandals in his paper. The residents left and moved to a new neighborhood called Snow Town.

Reward Notice for Information on Snow Town Rioters
The victims had not run far enough. In 1831 white rioters again attacked the black neighborhood, destroying homes. This time, however, Providence did not applaud. The governor sent in the state militia, which shot into the white rabble, killing four. The town then created a police force to protect it’s citizens--ALL its citizens. The African-Americans might still be second class citizens, but they at least got some protection from brutality.

Shelter for Colored Children
Some of Providence’s people wanted to do more to help. In 1838, the Quakers created the Providence Shelter for Colored Children. (“Colored” was the polite term for people of African descent in the 19th century. Apparently people of European descent have no color and are transparent.) At first the shelter was a home for orphans, but it soon expanded its scope to include day care for working parents and vocational training for their children.

The Quakers also starterd a school for African-American children in the 1820s. Providence setup a public school system in 1828, for all children. However, they also created a separate school for “coloreds.” Thankfully in 1866 the city outlawed these silly segregation laws.

Both Hard Scramble and Snow Town are both gone, swallowed up by a rapidly growing city. Historians argue where those sites now are. I was asked to find them There are black neighborhoods in South Providence, West Elmwood and on the East Side. Only a few old people even remember Hard Scrabble and Snow Town. I am getting mixed reports from them. I think they have suppressed some of those memories, so I am having a very hard time pin-pointing the areas. Still the current neighborhoods will disappear in the 1960s so I am careful to at least record them.

Edward Bannister
Times are still hard for the African-Americans, but some are making great strides. Many are still factory workers and domestics, but some are successful businessmen (and women) as well as artists and teachers. In 1877, Inman Page and George Washington Milford became the first African Americans to graduate from Brown University. Another chap, Edward Bannister, is a landscape artist and winner of the bronze medal in the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia. He helped co-founded the Providence Art Club and took part in the founding of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Things are looking up in 1891, but Providence has a long way to go before there is any real equality. But African-Americans are a plucky lot. They are working hard so future generations can have what they were never allowed.

Rhode Island Black Heritage Society

African American Providence

Providence Newspapers and the Racist Riots of 1824 and 1831

"Driving Home the Cows" by Edward Bannister

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