The Tragedy of Hard Scrabble

By Gavroche Allen.

O, de next morning such condition our village
 So late do seems of confusion, riot and pillage.
-Hard Scrabble, from an 1824 pamphlet

This 1824 broadside phrase illustrates the aftermath of a race riot that destroyed a predominately African-American community in Providence called Hard Scrabble. Few today know of the events that took place in this neighborhood nearly two centuries ago, but the riot that occurred there was a major controversy back in its day. This conflict illuminated the stark racial, social, and political divisions that split the town at that time.
The riot was sparked when a group of black men walking in Providence refused to give up the “inside walk” to a number of white individuals coming from the opposite direction on an autumn evening. The next night, on October 18, 1824, violence broke out. A mob of white residents from all parts of Providence attacked a section of North Main Street. About twenty African-Americans’ homes and that of one white resident were destroyed during the riot. Only four rioters were tried after the Hard Scrabble incident, and all but one was eventually acquitted.
Race, of course, played a huge part in the incident. Although Rhode Island contained one of the highest percentages of free blacks throughout the U.S., there was still a sharp racial divide, and at the time of the riot, suffrage was only allowed to white male land owners. A couple of days before the riot, Chief Justice William Spear contributed an editorial to the Providence Beacon in which he commented that blacks in Providence were “naturally vicious and wicked.” Before the riot, Hard Scrabble was known as that part of the city where people of “ill repute” resided; it was deemed a place plagued with “criminal elements.” It was no wonder, then, that Joseph Tillinghast, the defense attorney in the “Hard Scrabble Riot” trial, stated that the reason the accused caused such destructive mayhem to that section of Providence was that they were protecting “the morals of the community.”

Attacks by white rioters on African Americans occurred in many parts of the country. This is a contemporary depiction of the 1863 New York Draft  Riot that occurred four decades after Providence’s Hard Scrabble riot. Photo from authentichistory.com

Attacks by white rioters on African Americans occurred in many parts of the country. This is a contemporary depiction of the 1863 New York Draft Riot that occurred four decades after Providence’s Hard Scrabble riot. Photo from authentichistory.com

Racial violence unfortunately continued in Providence in later years. An integrated working-class community, Snow Town, was malevolently assaulted by white rioters in 1831 when a black resident shot and killed a white sailor for throwing stones at his home. The “Snow Town Riots” resulted in four whites being killed by the local militia. As a result of the tragic events of Snow Town, the General Assembly granted the town of Providence a city charter in November of 1831, giving the presiding mayor the power to imprison anyone who carried out any sort of disorderly conduct in the municipality.
After the Civil War, the memory of Hard Scrabble and Snow Town and the violence the residents there had endured began to fade away. Ironically, the shadow of the State House still falls upon the sites of this chapter in the city’s dark and almost forgotten past. Although both neighborhoods were cursed by rumors of crime and seedy activities, they also housed a vibrant working-class community composed of all races that lived together in harmony. While we shouldn’t forget the racial hatred and violence that marred this chapter in Providence’s history, we should also remember the diversity and solidarity that characterized our own 99% in these neighborhoods, too.

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Sources about Hard Scrabble:
Crouch, John, “Providence Newspapers and the Race Riots of 1824 and 1831.”   http://patriot.net/~crouch/artj/riot.html

Hard-Scrabble Calendar: Report of the Trials of Oliver Cummins Who Were Indicted with Six Others for a Riot, and for Aiding in Pulling Down a Dwelling-House, on the 18th of October, at Hard-Scrabble (1824).

Sweet, John Wood.  Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North 1730-1830.
University of Pennsylania Press, 2006.

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Maritcha Lyons: Early Civil Rights Activist

By Patricia Raub

Roger Williams and Thomas Dorr are well known in Rhode Island, but few people have heard of Maritcha Lyons. Yet this woman won a significant civil rights victory in 1865 when she argued before the RI legislature that African American students should be admitted to any public school in the state— and won. When she graduated from Providence High School in 1869, she was the first African-American person to do so.

Maritcha Lyons

Maritcha Lyons was born in 1848 into a Manhattan family that held education in high regard. Her father had attended the first African Free School in the city. Her parents enrolled Lyons and her older sister in a segregated Manhattan school, the only school open to African-Americans in Manhattan in the 1850s; finding it inadequate, their parents transferred the girls to an integrated school in Brooklyn.

After a severe illness forced Lyons to miss several years of school, she attended Colored School No. 3 in then-uptown Manhattan, where the school’s principal, Charles Reason, a friend of her parents, helped her catch up for the time she had lost.

As a child, Lyons was quite aware of the slavery controversy and the efforts by abolitionists to end slavery— and, in the meantime, to help those enslaved in the South to escape. Reason was associated with the abolitionists; he was “one of the first blacks to earn a college degree and also one of the first to teach mixed-race college classes, both at the abolitionist Central College in New York State.” (Notable Black American Women, Vol. II: 419). Lyon’s parents’ boarding house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her parents estimated later that they had helped 1,000 people along their journey to freedom. Lyons’ grandmother treasured the memory of a visit by escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass to her home. After he told of his life in slavery and his escape from bondage, she “pledged that when- ever he came to town, ‘you will find a seat at my table, a place to sleep and I will keep your linen laundered for you.’” There is no record, however, that Douglass took Lyons’ grandmother up on her offer.

Lyons’ childhood, her long illness notwithstanding, seems to have been a happy one. She and her three siblings attended fireworks displays in City Hall Park, visited New York’s first world’s fair, and watched early baseball games across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey. When Lyons was forced to leave school because of her health, her father bought her a piano.

These days of relative security and peace abruptly ended with the New York Draft Riot in July of 1863. Mobs protesting the national draft took to the streets. Although their anger would have been more justly targeted at the wealthy elite who were able to buy their way out of their military obligations, the rioters instead aimed their wrath at the city’s African Americans, reasoning that the abolition of slavery was the real reason why the North was fighting the war. The white working-class immigrants who participated in the riots preferred African Americans to remain as slaves in the South. Why should Northern workmen risk their lives in order to free people who would then move North and become competitors for scarce jobs? The rioters looted and burned homes throughout the Manhattan African-American community. The Lyons family escaped without physical harm, but their house was vandalized.

After a stay of several months with friends in Salem, Massachusetts, the family moved back to their restored house in Manhattan. Like many others in the African-American community, though, the Lyons felt uncomfortable in the city, and they left again in 1864, this time for Providence, Rhode Island.

The Lyons family may have settled in a city in which they would encounter less overt racial violence (the Olney Lane riot had taken place three decades earlier), but Providence was equally racist. When the Lyons tried to enroll their younger children in the city’s public elementary schools, their application was denied— since there was a separate “colored” school for the lower grades. There was no “colored” high school, however, and state law forbade African-

Americans students from entering public schools, so where was sixteen-year-old Maritcha Lyons to continue her education? She made her case before the General Assembly and eventually won the right to enter Providence High School.

Much like those young people who first integrated public schools in the South during the Civil Rights era a century later, Lyons at first found few white students who would befriend her. The desks at this time were designed to accommodate two students sitting side by side. Despite the school’s over- crowded conditions, Lyons occupied her desk alone during her first year at Providence High. Eventually, some students, including Lucia Tappan, from a family of abolitionists, and teacher and women’s rights advocate Sarah Doyle befriended her.

After graduation she considered going to Oberlin College, the Ohio school that was the first to admit women and was also a nineteenth-century leader in African-American education. However, Lyons decided against college and in favor of getting a job. She returned to New York City and began a half-century education career in Brooklyn, first as a teacher at Colored School No. 1, which later became a public school, and then as an assistant principal at Public School No. 83.

Even though most in Rhode Island have long forgotten Maritcha Lyons and her role in integrating the state’s educational system, New Yorkers have commemorated her by naming the Lyons Community School in Brooklyn after her because, as the school states on its website, “she embodies the kind of full, well-rounded life we want for all our students.”

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SOURCES:
Bolden, Tonya.  Maritcha:  A Nineteenth-Century American Girl.  New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005.
Lyons Community School  http://www.lyonscommunityschool.org/about-lyons/maritcha-lyons
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed.  Notable Black American Women, Book II.  New York:  Gale.  pp. 417-421.

An Interview With Former Civil Rights Organizer, Charles Cobb, Jr.

Interviewed by Gavroche Allen.

I was privileged to have an moment to talk with a person who participated in one of the turbulent if not inspiring times in recent U.S. history. Prof. Charles Cobb Jr. was one of the community organizers in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Professor Cobb is now a part time teacher in the Africana studies at Brown University and now resides in Florida. He relates to me some personal accounts during that time. He also gives some insight on how we as activists can move forward.

Professor Cobb, can you tell me about your life before you joined SNCC?    
When the first sit-ins happened in the early 1960s I was in high school in Springfield, Mass. When I first saw what happened to them on television, my first reaction was that they look like me. Not in a racial but in a generational sense. They were young and engaged in Civil Rights activities.
If you were black in the 1960s, you planned to go to a historically black college. Only a handful of blacks went to white schools like Brown. Most blacks went to black schools, and the odds were overwhelming that you were going to the South. That meant you were going to sit in segregated public places. The question was: what you going to do about it?
My family was a politically active family. I was predisposed. When I got to Howard, I become involved the sit-in movement. It is through that involvement that I got into SNCC. It was Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was also active in the Civil Rights Movement, that invited me to a workshop in Texas and handed me some money for a bus ticket. This bus ticket gets me all through the South, and I decided to see all through the South. I get off the bus at Jackson, Mississippi, to meet with the students sitting in. The reason I get in Mississippi is that it is entirely associated with Emmett Till’s murder. To make a long short: I thought the state was so dangerous I wanted to meet these students. They convince me to stay in the state.

Can you describe SNCC and how they played a part in the Civil Rights Movement in the South?
They are three important things you have to understand about SNCC that made it unique in its time. First, it was an organization of young people. First time you got to see young people working 24/7 for change. Second, it was a movement of a grass-roots organization. It was an organization of organizers from student protest. Third, it was a radical organization. Not radical in an ideological sense but in the people we worked with. They were maids and sharecroppers. The poorest of the poor, in the most racist of societies.

What were the main goals of SNCC during the 60s? Do you think SNCC succeeded in accomplishing those goals?    
We saw ourselves as organizers, not leaders. Our goal was to help people speak with their own voices instead of being spoken for by others. And also to organize for themselves. In some ways we were successful but not entirely successful, because there is still a struggle in this country.

You had such dynamic leaders such as Stokely Carmichael and Ella Baker in the movement back then. How did these leaders shape you as a community organizer?
Stokely Carmichael and Ella Baker were two key components of SNCC. The key person in SNCC was Ella Baker. She, of course, was from an older generation. But she recognized when the sit-ins erupted that the student energy was important. She was the one that pulled us together. As a result, thus began the creation of SNCC. She was the one who steered us into grassroots organizing. To quote her, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

What are the similarities and differences between movements in the 60s and the Occupy movement today?
The obvious similarity is the issue of protest. The kind of protest Occupy is making resembles some of the protests in the 60s. So far the differences outweigh the similarities. I can’t know every single Occupy movement in every city. It seems to me so far this movement has not figured out what it wants in regard with community organizing. It has not figured out how to find a language or a method to begin to speak in organizing in the communities. These communities may not understand or agree with the Occupys.
Look at the evolution of SNCC. It evolves from an organization of student protestors into an organization of organizers impeding in the communities. You cannot sustain a movement with protest.

By assessing the last six to seven months, where do you see the Occupy movement heading?
Simple answer: I don’t know. I can’t know its real internal dynamics. Unless Occupy figures out how to really organize in the community, they will be marginalized.

There has been a spark of interest about people of color and abuses of law enforcement, for example, the murder of Trayvon Martin and the wrongful execution of Troy Davis. Do you think this recent outrage will develop into another Civil Rights Movement?
Again, I don’t know. First, we need to see these things are not uncommon. The whole issue of violence of authorities directed at young black males has been with us for decades. You see the Trayvon protests and do you know who I see speaking: old men.  Maybe it is my prejudice, but I do not believe you get a movement out of old men like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. You get a movement when young men and women take leadership on this issue.

What final advice do you have for the new generation of young activists?
Take the lead! It’s your future. People talk about passing the torch. No! Take the touch!