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“Snowstorm In August”–History Vividly Written About Race And Politics

March 15, 2015

While James has been undertaking a massive quilting project this weekend I have spent much of my time in the 1830’s.  Once again I have been taken in by a tightly constructed and riveting account of a slice of American history.  In this case, a story that is new in many ways, since it certainly never made it to a history lecture in any classroom I attended.


Snowstorm In August–Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 by Jefferson Morley first came to my attention some months back when I read a review which started out by saying once this book is read there is no way to hear The Star Spangled Banner the same way again.   I can assure my readers there is no way Key will ever again be looked at in the same light after reading this book.

Morley tackles his topic in a jammed-packed book filled with chronological angles allowing the reader to get a deeper feeling for the main characters of the era and the issues that would have dominated conversations at the time.  Then comes the main event that makes this book hum with a most vivid sense of the year 1835.

It is August 4th when Arthur Bowen, an eighteen-year-old slave, enters the bedroom where his owner, Anna Thornton is sleeping.  He carries an ax but will quickly run away.  Days later after the news travels around the city of what happened Washington experiences a race riot.  Whites unleash their fury at the homes and property of free blacks.  Residents will term this event the “Snow-Storm,” in reference to the central role of Beverly Snow, a flamboyant former slave turned successful restaurateur, who became the target of the mob’s rage.

The story of Snow opens the book with a most revealing look at how Washington allowed for free blacks to own a business at that time, and also how the restaurant industry as we know it started in a real way with his efforts.

Following the riot are the trials, and the work of Key who served as the city’s district attorney.  The read will leave you with no fondness for his tactics.  But the trial is not the first time in the book readers come to know about his ambitions and ways.  For me this was the first time ever to have read this much about Key, this whole event, and needless to say it is illuminating.

The book is fast-paced but not so quick as to disallow for a real sense of the period or the nature of the cast of characters.  This type of book alerts everyone (I suspect) to the many stories that are left on the cutting room floor when history is pared down for general reading in classrooms.   Longtime readers to this blog know I gravitate to these types of books.

If you want your history sugar-coated and sparse of the realities of our nation’s story than this is not one to set on the nightstand.   But if you want to learn something and have a grand time turning the pages this book is one to hold in your hands.  If I could drop my copy off in your mailbox I would!

I do not give a star rating to the many books I write about on this blog.  But if I was forced to do so using a five-star system Snowstorm In August would get six.  It is that remarkable.

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