In 1824, several hundred white people tore down about 20 homes occupied by black people in a mixed neighborhood called Hardscrabble in the Town of Providence, R.I.
What triggered the riot will probably never be known.
The underlying cause, though, was the industrialization that pushed artisans like weavers and shoemakers into factory jobs. They resented it, and they took their resentment out on poor African Americans.
After the riot, a racist broadside circulated in which the fictional black narrator laments,
O, de next morning such condition our village
So late de scenes of confusion, riot and pillage.
The pamphlet also promised similar treatment to other African Americans settling in Providence.
And sure enough, more rioters attacked another black neighborhood – and Providence finally did something about it.
The American slave trade centered in Rhode Island during the 17th and early 18th centuries. As a result, Rhode Island had the densest population of African Americans in New England.
It isn’t clear where Hardscrabble was located. Some say the Statehouse looks out over the neighborhood, others think it stood at the base of Olney Street.
Respectable and hardworking free blacks lived cheek by jowl with brothels, dance halls and saloons. Sailors, many of them Irish, patronized Hardscrabble’s dens of vice.
White men forced into factory jobs lumped all black residents of Hardscrabble together as shiftless criminals. Their racist attitudes were ‘an engine of respectability,’ according to historian Joanne Pope Melish.
In 1883, an African-American resident of Providence named William J. Brown remembered the Hardscrabble riot in his memoirs.
“The feeling against the colored people was very bitter,” he wrote. “The colored people themselves were ignorant of the cause, unless it could be our attributed to our condition, not having the means to raise themselves in the scale of wealth and affluence.”
As a result, he wrote, the ‘evil disposed’ would abuse the colored people with impunity. “Mobs were also the order of the day, and the poor colored people were the sufferers.”
On the night of Oct. 17, 1824, a fight broke out between large parties of black and white men. Apparently a black man had refused to step aside for a white man on the sidewalk in Hardscrabble.
The next night around 7 PM a large mob of white people gathered on a bridge. There was no moon that night, but many carried lamps. Some carried axes and clubs.
The noisy crowd surged toward Hardscrabble. Oliver Cummins went into Henry Wheeler’s house, a dance hall and a residence. Someone fired a pistol. Oliver Cummins claimed Henry Wheeler shot him in the mouth, but witnesses said they saw no injury to Cummins when they examined him.
A witness named Jesse Sweet later testified that about 40 people began tearing down Wheeler’s house, chopping at it with axes and then pushing over the walls. When they half finished, they moved on to another house and began tearing it down. A thousand people, including police and members of the Town Council, looked on but did nothing.
Over the next few hours, the mob tore down 20 houses, even toppling brick chimneys. They carried off what little furniture the Hardscrabble residents had and sold it at auction in Pawtucket. And some houses they set on fire.
A grand jury later charged 11 men, described as gentlemen, laborers and traders, with rioting. Oliver Cummins and Nathaniel Metcalf were found guilty, but due to legal technicalities they went free. Many witnesses who had joined the mob that night testified they saw none of the accused do anything wrong. Prosecutors dropped charges against the rest of the men.
Brown remembered a pious widower named Christopher Hall who lived in Hardscrabble. The mob tore down his house. He put the roof over his cellar and lived in it all winter. Then he moved to Liberia.
A pamphlet arguing for a different form of government circulated in the aftermath of the Hardscrabble Riot.
“Our own citizens may be led to infer that there is a tardiness and inefficiency in the nature of our municipal government…which, as we increase in population, it may become necessary to exchange for a form that will not in fact be more despotic than the undefined powers of a Town Council, but which is fitted to carry those powers into speedy and efficient operation.
Seven years later another mob laid waste to another African-American neighborhood called Snowtown. The Snowtown Riot lasted several days, and the governor and the sheriff eventually ordered in the militia. The Town Council, which governed Providence, could do nothing to stop the violence.
In 1831, a majority of the town’s 17,000 residents voted a charter to make Providence a city.
This story was updated in 2020.