Monday, November 5, 2012

"Snow-Storm in August" by Jefferson Morley (2012)

The City of Washington D.C. springs to life in the hands of author Jefferson Morley’s book “Snow-Storm in August”. Billed as a biography of one man, Beverly Snow; a free man of color living in D.C. at the time; the book is so much more. Mr. Snow’s story is merely the vehicle by which the author has painted a very accurate; and fascinating; portrait of Washington only 3 decades after it was founded. There were times, while reading this book, in which Mr. Snow became the furthest thing from my mind.
The book delves into the history behind the decision to locate the Capital City where it stands today; and not in another Northern state, such as New York, or Philadelphia, both of which had already been home to our fledgling national government. The District of Columbia was chosen because it was acceptable to the Southern states, being surrounded; as it was; on two sides, by the slave holding states of Maryland to the North, and Virginia to the South. The district was filled with African- Americans, some free, and some enslaved.
Mr. Snow was of mixed race; referred to at the time as “mulatto”; and owned an oyster house on the James River in the town of Lynchburg, Virginia. He took for a wife a free woman of color named Julia, and the couple moved in with Beverly’s owner Susannah Norvell. Susannah’s father had left her Beverly in his will. Sussanah was a forward thinking woman who disliked the institution of slavery and manumitted Beverly, enabling him and Julia to open their very prosperous oyster house. Each month some of the profits would be kept by Beverly and his wife, while the rest went to Sussanah.
Before long, the lure of the Capital City, and the profits to be made there, called to Beverly. He settled all accounts with his mistress and her husband, and then he and Julia moved; as free persons of color; to the District. There, Beverly went to work for Jesse Brown, who owned a fine restaurant.
The author also introduces us to a Mrs. Anna Thornton, a Washington widow who owned some property and several slaves. She allowed her driver, George Plant to live in Georgetown with his wife of color, who was also a free woman. This was not an unusual arrangement at the time in Washington. So long as the servant showed up at the master’s home at the appointed time, there was no trouble.
On the night of August 4th, 1835, one of Mrs. Thornton’s servants; a young man named Arthur Bowen; who was also the son of her most trusted maid, tried to kill her. His own mother awoke just in time to stop her son from killing her mistress. The boy fled and a city erupted in violence. This was the first race riot in Washington, D.C., a city which was divided in its customs and viewpoints concerning slavery. Anna Thornton’s assailant was sentenced to death by hanging, and only her impassioned plea for clemency; made by Mrs. Thornton out of her fondness for the boy’s mother; caused President Jackson to pardon the young man.
With a deft style that will keep you turning the pages, the author rolls back the curtain on a time in our nation’s history when slaves built our national monuments, while great statesmen spoke of “freedom for all.” This is one of the most neglected chapters of our history; how a nation; truly divided, and on the brink of civil war; managed to hold together for so long before the issue of slavery finally ripped it in half.
The book also explores the career of Francis Scott Key after he wrote the “Star Spangled Banner”. He was the District Attorney in Washington at the time of these events. He waged a campaign against vice, mainly the many brothels which proliferated in Washington at the time. He also wrote erotic poetry and was tone deaf, and never got to hear his immortal poem sung to music.
As a matter of fact, the author has packed so much information into this work, that Beverly Snow’s story gets a bit lost in it. This book is so wide in its scope that it will take a second reading to truly enjoy it fully. That’s a compliment.

No comments:

Post a Comment