Snow-Storm in August

Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835

by Jefferson Morley

Hardcover, 334 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $28.95 | purchase

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Title
Snow-Storm in August
Subtitle
Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835
Author
Jefferson Morley

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Book Summary

The Washington, D.C. editor of Salon documents how the epic struggle over slavery culminated in a race riot in mid-19th-century Washington City, providing coverage of such topics as the period influx of free black citizens, the contributions of District Attorney Francis Scott Key and the trials of Arthur Bowen and Beverly Snow.

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Excerpt: Snow-Storm In August

5

Beverly's first winter in Washington was a season of cold reflection. The Potomac River froze solid and the draymen could drive their carts across the ice, the first time that had happened in thirty years. The snow drifted knee deep around the presidential mansion, and construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal ceased. One day in February, an eclipse of the sun brought an eerie dusk to the white landscape of the city for three hours. Beverly and Julia stayed warm by tending the fires of his kitchen stove.

The latest affliction facing colored people was the white man's enthusiasm for African colonization. The Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the American Colonization Society, held in the Capitol on January 19, 1831, provoked more than a little discussion in the boardinghouses and the hotels. According to a sympathetic account in the Intelligencer, dozens of leading gentlemen attended, including senators, congressmen, judges, and clergymen. The meeting passed high- toned resolutions calling for renewed efforts to promote the migration of freed American slaves to a colony on the west coast of Africa called Liberia. The society, its leaders declared, had already made much progress. In the past year, they had collected more than $27,000 and sent two boatloads of black people to Liberia.

African colonization for free black Americans was a venerable idea, enjoying wide support among educated white Americans uncomfortable with the contradiction between America's revolutionary ideals and American slavery. Colonization had been first proposed almost fifty years before by William Thornton, the late architect of the Capitol. As a young man, Thornton had seen the workings of slavery at his family's plantation on the island of Tortola in the West Indies. In the late 1780s, he traveled up and down the eastern seaboard touting the idea to free people of color and interested whites. He attracted some support but never succeeded in getting anyone to actually emigrate. His family in Tortola virtually disowned him, and he soon dropped the notion in favor of his idea of designing the Capitol.

Thornton's idea was revived around 1810 by Paul Cuffe, a black sea captain who lived in Westport, Massachusetts. Convinced that the black people needed to get away from whites if they were to have any peace and happiness, Cuffe organized an initial expedition to Sierra Leone, where a small community of free blacks was established. Colonization gained credibility and prestige among whites in 1817 with the founding of the American Colonization Society in Washington. The society attracted gentlemen, from both the North and South, determined to do something about the practice of slavery, which all agreed was a blot on America's democratic aspirations. The founders included William Thornton, Henry Clay, Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, and Bushrod Washington, a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and nephew of the first president.

In Washington City, most of the gentlemen friendly to colored people also supported the idea. William Bradley, friend and patron of Beverly Snow, was a colonization man. So was William Seaton, the editor of the Intelligencer. So was Francis Scott Key, the Georgetown attorney famed as author of the popular song "The Star- Spangled Banner."

The discussion of colonization warmed with the weather in early 1831, not the least among those who would be most affected. On a windy Wednesday evening in late April, a large and respectable crowd of colored people gathered at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on South Capitol Street. The church belonged to a network of black Methodist congregations founded in Philadelphia in the 1790s by a former slave named Richard Allen, who had tired of mistreatment by white clergymen. Colored Methodists from Maryland to Maine followed his example, and by 1831, the AME churches constituted the largest black institution in the country, with ten thousand parishioners in every northern state and several southern ones.

The meeting, open to the public, was chaired by John Prout, headmaster at the school for colored children on H Street. The assembled crowd passed a series of resolutions addressed to the American Colonization Society. The free people of color in Washington City announced that they viewed the society's efforts with "distrust." They affirmed their ties to the United States, insisting "the soil which gave them birth is their only true and veritable home." In a nod to Ben Lundy (who probably was there) and William Lloyd Garrison (who was not), the attendees approved a resolution recommending that people of color subscribe to and read the Genius of Universal Emancipation and The Liberator. The meeting, as reported in the Intelligencer, signaled a new development. African American political action had come to the nation's capital for the first time.

Beverly Snow, more interested in cooking than colonization, forged ahead with his business ambitions. In the fall of 1832 he and William Walker prepared to move their eating house on Seventh Street to a more central location. Among Beverly's new acquaintances was a white man named John Withers who promised something better. Withers, at age fifty- five, was nearly twenty- five years older than Beverly. A liberal- minded businessman from Alexandria, he used the profits of his mercantile firm to buy no less than seventeen different pieces of real estate up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. He also engaged in philanthropy and eventually became the greatest benefactor of the Colombian College (which evolved into today's George Washington University).

Beverly eyed with the most interest a three- story brick building that Withers had just constructed on the northwest corner of Sixth and Pennsylvania, at the cost of twelve thousand dollars. This fresh edifice rose between the imposing bulk of Jesse Brown's Indian Queen Hotel on the Avenue and its chief rival, John Gadsby's National Hotel around the corner. A drugstore already occupied the corner shop, between Mr. Handy's Hat Store and his friend Isaac Cary's Emporium of Fashion. Beverly liked the company.

On the sidewalk in front there was an outdoor stairwell surrounded by a cast-iron guardrail. The stairs descended to a basement door, behind which lay several large, gloomy, and empty rooms. Beverly envisioned this underground lair as the home of his new eating house. He would set up a basement kitchen, just like he had in the Warwicks' house in Lynchburg.

It was a novel idea. A basement was about the last place you would expect to find respectable people eating dinner. Slaves and servants, maybe. Ladies and gentlemen, rarely. But John Withers went along, agreeing to provide Beverly and his partner with tables and chairs to furnish the dining rooms and bar. In the farthest recesses of the basement, Beverly installed a kitchen and larder. On the wall outside the entrance, William Walker hung a large sign, hand painted in red and black, which announced "Refectory: Snow and Walker's."

At the same time, Beverly wanted his customers to know the place by a different and more evocative name with a classical theme. In a round of advertisements placed in the Intelligencer, the Globe, and the Telegraph in October 1832, Beverly announced a grander name for his new establishment:

SNOW'S EPICUREAN EATING HOUSE

The proprietor has spared neither pains nor expense to secure the comfort of his guests, and, if a decided disposition to oblige, coupled with a choice and well- stored Larder and bar, can command patronage, he confidently challenges competition.

Beverly invited "the citizen and the stranger alike" to call on his service, pledging himself to "their good entertainment." His basement eatery soon filled with new and old customers.

Beverly, it seems, had read some ancient Greek philosophy over the years (not hard to do in Washington) and had come to admire Epicurus, the philosopher of pleasure and virtue, whose thinking so appealed to Thomas Jefferson. The former president, who had died in 1826, had called Epicurean thought "the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolic extravagancies of rival sects."

Like Jefferson, Beverly found in Epicurus a kindred spirit. The Athenian sage held the unique view that happiness was proof of a virtuous life, which was rather different from what most Christians believed. Thus the name had its risks. In a city where evangelical Christianity was fast becoming the dominant religion and a country where many prided themselves on republican simplicity, the word "Epicurean" often evoked corrupt indulgence. When Alexander Hamilton called Jefferson "an Epicurean" he may have been alluding to the not-quite-secret fact that Jefferson kept a slave mistress, Sally Hemings. He certainly did not speak as a friend. An epicure, in common usage, was an immoral atheist, devoted to sensualism, or, more loosely and less negatively, a gourmand devoted to pleasures of the table. Beverly did not accept the former charge, nor dispute the latter. Like other contemporary admirers, he did not recognize Epicurus as hedonistic or corrupt. Anyone who read his maxims knew that Epicurus was among the least indulgent of the ancients. "The Wise Man ought never to drink to Excess," he advised his followers. "Neither must he spend the Nights in Reveling and Feasting."

The name of Beverly's new place appealed to a common sentiment emerging in the forward-thinking middle class: Epicurus had something to offer to the people of America. The same month Beverly lit his new stove, the lead story in The New- England Magazine, a popular national publication, declared, "Of all the philosophers of antiquity, whose tenets are frequently and familiarly referred to, Epicurus is the least understood in his moral doctrine and the most unjustly reproached in life and character."

The author, a physician named Charles Caldwell, emphasized the man's modernity. "The virtue of Epicurus was not that of the ancient Stoics or Cynics nor of the modern Puritans," he wrote. "It was, however, greatly preferable to either; because it was much more conformable to the constitution of human nature."

The spiritual appeal of Epicurus for Beverly is not hard to conjure. Epicurus lived in a time of tyranny. So did Beverly. Epicurus did not take much interest in the religion of his day, saying the gods had little interest in the affairs of mortals. Beverly could see that the Christian god did not worry much about the suffering of Africans in America. Epicurus counseled avoidance of public affairs and the illegal use of women, prudent advice for a free man of color in slaveholding Washington City. For Beverly the hardy Epicurean precepts offered protection from the drink and sloth that enervated so many former bondsmen when they gained their freedom. Yet Epicurean thinking did not require him to subscribe to the white man's Puritan asceticism or his self- righteous patriotism. Epicurus joined pleasure and virtue and invited all men to pursue both. His way of thinking was natural and easy, which had been Beverly's style since Lynchburg. He was proud to call himself an Epicurean. Many Americans were.

"No word has more censurably been perverted from its original and proper signification than the word EPICUREANISM," declared the Boston Masonic Mirror in October 1830. "So far from being, in its proper sense, luxury or sensual enjoyment it is derived from the name of a sage of transcendent genius ... EPICURUS, who lived three hundred years before Christ and was the most philosophical and temperate, if not the most abstemious, Grecian of his time." Epicurus, said the Masonic Mirror, "dared to expose the absurd theology of his day, and in his life and doctrines gave a perpetual rebuke to vice and immorality of every kind... . Such was Epicurus, and what rational man would not be his disciple?"

Beverly must have asked himself that very question, because in June 1833, he provided a direct answer in another advertisement in the Globe:

BEVERLY SNOW: THE DISCIPLE OF EPICURUS

And grand Caterer to the good taste of a kind public ... will, This Day at 11 o'clock serve up a splendid GREEN TURTLE in Soup, dressed in Port Wine.

Beverly's whimsy mixed self- confidence with self- deprecation:

Mr. Snow feels certain he can give universal satisfaction, and his Champaigne, though it may offend the purse can never affect the head... . His bills of fare can only be surpassed by his bills of cost, which to make a bad pun, are generally very fair things. Without further comments on his own merits, he will close with a promise to be liberal.

It is safe to say that no black man, free or enslaved, had ever dared to speak so freely and publicly to the white people of Washington City. The man from Lynchburg turned the insult of Epicureanism into a compliment and a calling card for his new eatery. His gambit was not only intellectually bold. It was commercially astute.

The Epicurean Eating House constituted one of the first true restaurants in Washington City, if not the very first. Of course, there had long been oyster houses, the fast-food outlets of their day. There were ordinaries, serving simple food and drink, like the one Beverly ran at the racetrack. And there were other cooks feeling the French infl uence. Ben Perley Poore, a newspaperman who chronicled capital life in the nineteenth century, credited Belgian cook Joseph Boulanger with operating Washington's first restaurant on G Street during the Jackson administration. But Boulanger was still a steward in Jackson's kitchen in 1832, when the Epicurean Eating House opened its doors.

The truth was Beverly had no rivals in the sophistication of his table service. He offered the basic features of a Parisian- style restaurant to the capital when few did so. He was among the first cooks to seat groups of patrons at their own tables; to serve meals at unspecified times; to provide a menu from which customers made their own choices; and to tout health and ambiance as part of the eating experience. He was at the forefront of creating a new sort of public place, a comfortable setting open to all, where people could go to eat and drink privately. Beverly Snow was helping to invent an institution that endures to this day: the Washington restaurant.

At the time, it was a dangerous idea.

Excerpted from Snow-Storm in August by Jefferson Morley. Copyright 2012 by Jefferson Morley. Excerpted by permission of Random House.