Before Rhode Island's State House was Built, a Providence Mob Destroyed the NeighborhoodHistorians in the News
tags: racism, urban history, Rhode Island, Providence
On a pair of folding tables in the basement of the Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, four metal trays display an unusual assemblage of artifacts. Humble ceramic tableware. Iron padlocks. Dominoes carved out of bone. A cut-glass tumbler. A diminutive bottle of French hair tonic. The headless body of a porcelain doll. A Spanish coin. A redware pot with drizzles of blue, black, yellow and green paint frozen in time on its sides.
These are the vestiges of Snowtown, a poor but vibrant mixed-race community that was once part of the state’s capital city, Providence. Moreover, it stood on the grounds where the state’s imposing capitol building now sits. Though no visible traces of the neighborhood remain, its history—including a deadly mob attack in 1831—is now being resurrected by the Snowtown Project.
The initiative began as an outgrowth of a Rhode Island State House Restoration Society subcommittee that was tasked with telling lesser-known stories about the capitol building and its grounds. Marisa Brown, who chairs the subcommittee and is an adjunct lecturer at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, says, “There’s a disconnect between the accuracy of what happened in the past and what our landscapes tell us. There are just too many places that we have lost.”
In 2019, the subcommittee emailed colleagues to gauge interest in researching Snowtown. Over the course of three meetings, a handful of people blossomed first into a group of 30 and now a cohort of more than 100 historians, archivists, archaeologists, teachers, storytellers, artists and community members.
After the American Revolution, Rhode Island experienced rapid population growth driven by the international “Triangle Trade”—of enslaved people, sugar products and spirits—through the port of Providence. The state’s distilleries had a special knack for turning imported sugarcane and molasses from the West Indies into rum, which was traded for enslaved labor. But by the 1830s, as the population surpassed 16,000, the manufacturing of textiles, jewelry and silverware had supplanted the merchant trade as the city’s primary economic driver.
The state’s Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784 had allowed children born to enslaved women to be freed once they reached adulthood. Within decades, a new population of free Black people had emerged, but they, along with indentured servants, Indigenous people, immigrants and impoverished white people, were pushed into marginalized communities. Many of these groups were denied the opportunity to work in the burgeoning manufacturing industry.
They lived in places like Snowtown, a settlement of shabby homes and businesses with little in the way of conveniences. It was home to between two and three dozen households, but the population ebbed and flowed. Some residents toiled as domestic servants in the homes of Providence’s elite, or in trades like carpentry and sewing. The most successful owned small businesses or boarding houses. Even for the latter, life in Snowtown was difficult.
Pollution in Providence made conditions even worse. The Great Salt Cove, a tidal estuary that had been significant to local Indigenous tribes, just below the sandy bluff where Snowtown was located, became a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. Real estate in the village was undesirable; rents were cheap; and “disreputable” businesses aimed at sailors coming through port—brothels, saloons and dance halls—proliferated.
In 1831, sailors newly arrived from Sweden aboard the steamer Lion started a brawl at a tavern in Olney’s Lane, a neighborhood adjacent to Snowtown that was also home to an assemblage of non-white communities. According to an account in the Rhode Island American and Gazette, the sailors gathered reinforcements and attacked a home occupied by “blacks of a dissolute character.” Two Black men fired on the sailors, slaying one and wounding three. The white mob, shouting “Kill every negro you can!” advanced uphill into Snowtown, where the shooter was believed to had fled.
Over the course of four days, 18 buildings in Snowtown and Olney’s Lane were damaged or destroyed. Eventually, the state militia, ill-equipped to handle the scene, fired to disperse the mob, killing four.
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