Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Arthur Bowen's unhappy fall

Twenty years ago the L. A. riots caused fear and destruction in parts of the city. I remember seeing the Rodney King video and being shocked by it, but just as shocked by something a co-worker said. She'd recently moved from L. A. where her husband had been on the LAPD, and after seeing the video he'd told his wife "Yeah, I've done that before." I won't speculate on the situations he might have been in and whether or not it was warranted, but Jamie and I were engaged at the time of the riots and we drove down to L. A. so she could attend a bridal shower. Her parents lived in the San Fernando Valley but the shower was down in Orange County, and the riots were going on in between. But Los Angeles is a big city, so the only effect it really had on us was that they had to hold the shower early so everyone could be home before the police-imposed curfew at 6PM. While she and her mother, grandmother, and sister drove across town I stayed at her home and watched the news coverage on TV, which was scary enough!

Unfortunately, race riots are nothing new in American history. In between the War for Independence and the Civil War calls for the abolition of slavery began to grow in number and volume, but few people could imagine whites and former black slaves living peacefully side-by-side. Some favored re-settling freed slaves in Africa or the Caribbean, but understandably most blacks viewed America as their home and didn't relish the idea of being shipped off to a land they'd never known. But it didn't stop a few abolitionists from agitating in southern states, and scattered reports of slave uprisings caused fear and anxiousness among those who owned such "human property."

Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 by Jefferson Morley tells the story of combustible race relations in the American capitol. Arthur Bowen, a young slave owned by Anna Thornton (widow of William Thornton, designer of the U. S. Capitol) who enjoyed a fair amount of liberty, came home very drunk late one night. What is known is that he picked up an axe and entered his mistresses' bedroom where his own mother also slept, and mumbled some drunken threats. His actual intent isn't known but the women panicked and Arthur was eventually arrested and charged with attempted murder. In the already charged atmosphere, mobs of white men quickly formed and threatened to take Arthur to "Judge Lynch."

At the same time a former slave named Beverly Snow (a man, not a woman) ran a popular and successful restaurant in Washington. Unlike Arthur, Beverly did not mix much with those pressing for emancipation, but was very forward and cheeky in promoting himself and his restaurant (which bothered some people). Rumors quickly spread that Snow had made offensive comments about white women, and the two situations combined to feed mob riots which came to be known as the "Snow-Storm."

Morley has written an interesting account of this long forgotten episode of history. He adds in the story of F. S. Key, whose song "The Star-Spangled Banner" was later adopted as the national anthem, and who as District Attorney prosecuted Bowen and Reuben Crandall, a white man who was allegedly circulating abolitionist newspapers. It's not a deep or dry history but is instead very readable, including dialog as it was recorded at the time ("edited for clarity") and it mostly avoids moralizing or making too many judgments. It's interesting to see the atmosphere and tensions in society as slavery began its long and painful death, and even though we've come a long way in race relations since then we can still do better. Personally, I agree with Rodney King when he said "Can't we all just get along?"

(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher and it will be sold in bookstores beginning July 3, 2012.)

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