Before Rhode Island Built Its State House, a Racist Mob Destroyed the Community That Lived There

In 1831, a group of white rioters razed the Providence neighborhood of Snowtown. Now, archaeologists are excavating its legacy

Photo of 1982 excavation at North Shore site
Photo of 1982 excavation at North Shore site Snowtown Project

On a pair of folding tables in the basement of the Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, four metal trays display an unusual assemblage of artifacts. Humble ceramic tableware. Iron padlocks. Dominoes carved out of bone. A cut-glass tumbler. A diminutive bottle of French hair tonic. The headless body of a porcelain doll. A Spanish coin. A redware pot with drizzles of blue, black, yellow and green paint frozen in time on its sides.

These are the vestiges of Snowtown, a poor but vibrant mixed-race community that was once part of the state’s capital city, Providence. Moreover, it stood on the grounds where the state’s imposing capitol building now sits. Though no visible traces of the neighborhood remain, its history—including a deadly mob attack in 1831—is now being resurrected by the Snowtown Project.

The initiative began as an outgrowth of a Rhode Island State House Restoration Society subcommittee that was tasked with telling lesser-known stories about the capitol building and its grounds. Marisa Brown, who chairs the subcommittee and is an adjunct lecturer at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, says, “There’s a disconnect between the accuracy of what happened in the past and what our landscapes tell us. There are just too many places that we have lost.”

Before Rhode Island Built Its State House, a Racist Mob Destroyed the Community That Lived There
1849 map of Providence, Rhode Island. Snowtown stood just north of the Cove, near the center of the map. Harvard University, Harvard Map Collection

In 2019, the subcommittee emailed colleagues to gauge interest in researching Snowtown. Over the course of three meetings, a handful of people blossomed first into a group of 30 and now a cohort of more than 100 historians, archivists, archaeologists, teachers, storytellers, artists and community members.

After the American Revolution, Rhode Island experienced rapid population growth driven by the international “Triangle Trade”—of enslaved people, sugar products and spirits—through the port of Providence. The state’s distilleries had a special knack for turning imported sugarcane and molasses from the West Indies into rum, which was traded for enslaved labor. But by the 1830s, as the population surpassed 16,000, the manufacturing of textiles, jewelry and silverware had supplanted the merchant trade as the city’s primary economic driver.

The state’s Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784 had allowed children born to enslaved women to be freed once they reached adulthood. Within decades, a new population of free Black people had emerged, but they, along with indentured servants, Indigenous people, immigrants and impoverished white people, were pushed into marginalized communities.  Many of these groups were denied the opportunity to work in the burgeoning manufacturing industry.

They lived in places like Snowtown, a settlement of shabby homes and businesses with little in the way of conveniences. It was home to between two and three dozen households, but the population ebbed and flowed. Some residents toiled as domestic servants in the homes of Providence’s elite, or in trades like carpentry and sewing. The most successful owned small businesses or boarding houses. Even for the latter, life in Snowtown was difficult.

Before Rhode Island Built Its State House, a Racist Mob Destroyed the Community That Lived There
View south from Smith Hill with downtown Providence in the background and residential buildings in the foreground, 1885 Providence Public Library under CC BY-SA 4.0

Pollution in Providence made conditions even worse. The Great Salt Cove, a tidal estuary that had been significant to local Indigenous tribes, just below the sandy bluff where Snowtown was located, became a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. Real estate in the village was undesirable; rents were cheap; and “disreputable” businesses aimed at sailors coming through port—brothels, saloons and dance halls—proliferated.

In 1831, sailors newly arrived from Sweden aboard the steamer Lion started a brawl at a tavern in Olney’s Lane, a neighborhood adjacent to Snowtown that was also home to an assemblage of non-white communities. According to an account in the Rhode Island American and Gazette, the sailors gathered reinforcements and attacked a home occupied by “blacks of a dissolute character.” Two Black men fired on the sailors, slaying one and wounding three. The white mob, shouting “Kill every negro you can!” advanced uphill into Snowtown, where the shooter was believed to had fled.

Over the course of four days, 18 buildings in Snowtown and Olney’s Lane were damaged or destroyed. Eventually, the state militia, ill-equipped to handle the scene, fired to disperse the mob, killing four.

Though residents rebuilt, by the late 1800s, Snowtown and its Black residents had been displaced by industrial progress. Rhode Island had grown into the wealthiest state per capita. In part as a monument to its prestige, the state commissioned renowned architects McKim, Mead & White, of Pennsylvania Station and New York Public Library renown, to design a massive State House on the bluff above Great Salt Cove. Construction was completed in 1904.

Before Rhode Island Built Its State House, a Racist Mob Destroyed the Community That Lived There
1828 lithograph showing view looking south from Smith’s Hill, with some of the buildings along the north shore of the Cove in the mid-ground Yale University Art Gallery

Today, all traces of Snowtown and its sister communities are obscured beneath railroad tracks, a small park commemorating state founder Roger Williams, and the ornate neoclassical capitol and its rolling green lawns.   

Still, says Chris Roberts, a Snowtown Project researcher and an assistant professor at Rhode Island School of Design, “If you’re researching slavery in Providence, Snowtown comes up. If you’re looking at the history of women in Providence, Snowtown shows up. If you’re looking into the city as a commercial hub, it comes up. Snowtown is a character in so many different histories of the city.”

Uncovering Snowtown has not been without challenges. For starters, the record is incomplete. Census data, for example, documents the names of heads of households, with only numbers to indicate women and children. “We often have to grapple with these archival silences,” says Jerrad Pacatte, a Snowtown research committee member and a PhD candidate at Rutgers University. “These were people who were not considered worthy of being counted.”

Physical evidence of entrepreneurship, creativity and personal care persist in a collection of about 32,000 artifacts. The artifacts were unearthed, and about 30 percent cataloged, in the early 1980s, when the Federal Railroad Administration undertook rail-improvement projects in the Northeast, including in Providence.

Before Rhode Island Built Its State House, a Racist Mob Destroyed the Community That Lived There
Assorted artifacts found during digs in the Snowtown neighborhood Snowtown Project

According to Heather Olson, the lab manager for PAL and a Snowtown Project researcher, the materials were then archived and shipped to what is now the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission. They remained there for 35 years, largely untouched, save for a few inquiries related to doctoral theses and a small exhibit in 1988; those items subsequently went missing.

The remaining artifacts were turned over to the PAL in 2013. The organization has digitally cataloged the entire collection—everything from writing slate and pencils to crucibles for metal working, woodworking tools and children’s toys. (Some of these digitized objects will hopefully be publicized online when the project is completed.)

Kitchen items are the most common, and they reflect a curious intermingling of status. Alongside unadorned plates and servingware, the collection includes pricey Blue Willow transferware, Chinese porcelain and an 18th-century feldspathic stoneware teapot. Olson says, “I don’t know if these arrived as clean fill from somewhere, if it was something bought secondhand, or if this was something that had been given to the people”—for example, to a domestic servant employed by the city’s wealthy.

Other artifacts give clues about the residents’ health. The large number of bottles for digestive tonics, for instance, speaks to the contaminated nature of the water supply. For Olson, the collection is an opportunity to examine a hidden history. “What can you identify? What can you say about people who were, for the most part, invisible?” she says.

If the complex work of the Snowtown Project shines a spotlight on a single truth, it’s that “written history belongs to the winners,” says Joanne Pope Melish, a retired University of Kentucky historian; the author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860; and co-chair of the project’s research committee.

“History, and the doing and the telling of history, is a product of the politics of the moment in which the telling of the story is happening and of the moment in which the story took place,” she explains.

Before Rhode Island Built Its State House, a Racist Mob Destroyed the Community That Lived There
Rooftop view of Providence from City Hall, looking north over railroad tracks, Providence Cove, and buildings in the distance, circa 1880. Snowtown is visible in the distance at top left. Providence Public Library under CC BY-SA 4.0

White supremacy was alive and well above the Mason-Dixon Line. Newly freed African American people traded the physical oppression of enslavement for the societal oppression of classism and historical effacement. Mentions of Snowtown are infrequent in contemporaneous newspapers. They begin to reemerge only in the 1960s, as the civil rights movement brought the neighborhood back into public consciousness.

This awareness has accelerated over the past decade, in direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Modern media retellings of vanished histories have also helped, such as the episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” that dramatized the events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Before Tulsa, according to Pope Melish, white mobs attacked northern Black neighborhoods 144 times between 1820 and 1850. While the Oklahoma attack was far deadlier, these assaults present two sides of the same coin. Pope Melish says, “It parallels the impossibility of being a ‘perfect’ enslaved person or free person of color. If you’re poor, you’re disgusting. If you’re successful, you’re uppity. Both cause hostility.”

Traci Picard, a public historian who co-chairs the Snowtown Project research team, has been working to unearth personal histories. She has sifted through thousands of seemingly mundane materials, including writs and warrants—an early version of small-claims court. “Every single thing is built by someone,” she says. “I don’t mean designed by someone, or who gets the credit for building it. Every single block, every single brick, every single building—we’re surrounded by people’s lives and experiences and stories.”

Planning is underway to present those stories in an exhibition at the State House, as well as a digital publication featuring maps, photos and documents. Snowtown History Walks debuted in June, and public art installations and signage for self-guided tours are also being discussed. 

Playwright and actor Sylvia Ann Soares, a programs team member and a Cape Verdean descendant of the Portuguese slave trade in Providence, is working on a Snowtown-themed play set to premiere next year. She believes that involvement of artists in the earliest stages of the project is integral to its retelling. “The results will be richer,” she says. “Many people will not read a scientific journal or go to a talk, but if it’s dramatic, if there’s some music, some songs of that era, it brings it alive.”

Soares adds, “I intend to [use the play to] speak out as an inspiration for advocacy against present-day injustice.”

For Pacatte, it’s also an opportunity to broaden our understanding of a part of American evolution that has been swept under the carpet of white history. “Snowtown is a microcosm for the very messy and prolonged process of emancipation that people in the North experienced before the Civil War,” he says. “It’s the story of African Americans [in the U.S.]: They were resilient and kept rebuilding their lives.”