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How Two Riots Made Providence a City

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Providence’s population, both enslaved and free, was growing quickly in the early 1800s as more and more trade came to the port. But small towns controlled the legislature and prevented Providence from assuming the status (and legislative clout) of an official city. Free blacks lived in the places they could afford – neighborhoods where real estate, much of it owned by white absentee landlords, was cheap, and where bars, dance halls and brothels that catered to sailors who worked at the port. Two of these neighborhoods were Hardscrabble and Snowtown, the sites of violent riots in 1824 and 1831 in which white mobs torched houses where blacks were living. After several days of mass property destruction in Snowtown by whites, the governor and the sheriff eventually ordered in the militia. Dismayed by the scale of public disorder, the Town Council passed a charter that created the office of mayor and made Providence, finally, a city.

Joanne Pope Melish, who has a Ph.D in American Civilization from Brown University and is associate professor emerita at the University of Kentucky, argues that a central problem undergirding the riots and other forms of racial conflict today is one of distance: prejudice grew as black and white people moved further away from each other. Rich and poor people had lived in close quarters in colonial times, but at the end of the 18th century, poor people were pushed to the margins, forming “sites of racial mixing” that began to be seen as “disorderly and a problem.” The participants in the riots were not, contrary to some reports, the poorest whites, who lived with blacks and formed families with them. It was white former artisans who had recently been forced into factory work by industrialization and resented it. They “latched onto racism,” says Melish, “as an engine of respectability.”

Black communities began to be associated automatically with dens of vice, prime targets for the urban renewal movement that swept destructively through the United States in the mid-twentieth century. In Providence, the next wave of displacement was restoration: the repair of historical housing on Benefit Street and the East Side which pushed out black renters. Section 8 housing stayed below demand. Predatory lenders expelled black owners from their homes. Poor communities shrank and grew more distant.

Today, Hardscrabble has become University Heights. A Marriott stands where Snowtown used to be, near Charles and Gaspee Streets. Two plaques near Roger Williams National Park commemorate the riots. Scholar and activist Ray Rickman, former State Representative and former president of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, helped put the plaques there and wants the Hardscrabble one mounted on a pedestal, with a light. “No one knows it’s there,” he says. At only six inches above the ground, he says, it’s “like a bad headstone.”

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