August 9, 2012

Book Review: Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835


Francis Scott Key, best known for writing "The Star-Spangled Banner," was also a pro-slavery lawyer and chief prosecutor for the city of Washington, D.C., in the 1830s, where he did little to prosecute crime against blacks. This didn't worry Beverly Snow, a freed slave with a flair for cooking; he opened a restaurant to remarkable success and avoided the harassment free blacks often faced in the city--until August 4, 1835.

On that night, a young slave named Arthur Bowen drunkenly stumbled into the bedroom of his mistress, Anna Thornton, holding an ax. Mrs. Thornton ran screaming for help, and Bowen was arrested. But tensions were already high due to abolitionist pamphlets that had been circulating in the city, and a mob surrounded the jail screaming for Bowen to be lynched. Key and other city officials managed to hold off the mob that night--but, thwarted in their attempts to kill Bowen, the crowds quickly shifted to an attack on local African American‑owned businesses. As one of the most successful black men in the city, Snow was a main target, and the violence and destruction became known as the "Snow-Storm." Snow managed to escape, and Key prosecuted Arthur Bowen for the attempted murder of Anna Thornton.

Snow-Storm in August offers an absorbing look at a little-known period in American history, and a fascinating glimpse at a complicated man remembered by further generations only for writing a song. Jefferson Morley skillfully portrays the racial tension of the era, and the careful balance that was so easily upset by Bowen's drunken actions.

Be warned, if you're anything like me, the irony of the fact that a racist promoter of slavery ended up writing our national anthem will make you twitch. But, Morley writes well, and manages to make Key almost understandable. Plus it's a fascinating bit of history that I had no clue about before this book. I've realized that in my brain U.S. history mostly skips from the war of 1812 to the Civil War, with a brief stop for the Oregon Trail and the Mexican-American war along the way. If, like me, you have a few gaps to fill, I'd recommend this one - it's a rather quick read, and the mob-rioting/danger keeps it exciting.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Should I recommend this to my grandma? Sure! Bet your grandma remembers a lot more racial tension than you'd think; she might appreciate a look at a history like this.
I originally wrote most of this review for Shelf Awareness, and was compensated for it. The cover image is an affiliate link.

Are you familiar with 1830s America? 
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