Between 1790 and 1824 Providence became a town where wealthy merchants like Zachariah and Crawford Allen, and fledgling industrial giants like Jabez Gorham, lived alongside aspiring middle class merchants like Joseph S. Martin. Together they inhabited a Providence where more laboring class people, free blacks such as George and Maria McCarty, and Abraham Perry and immigrant Irish like the parents of James Slaven, sailors and other men with little property, frequently rubbed shoulders in a town that was increasingly separating along racial and class lines.
Prominent residents were concerned over the drunkenness and prostitution that increasingly seemed part of the local economy. Frequently petitions were circulated, including one in 1817 by Moses Brown, signed by Reverend Stephen Gano, a long time minister of the First Baptist Church, and other wealthy and middle class members of the community to rid the city of such vices.
Hard Scrabble, also known as Addison’s Hollow, was a place where a “great many colored people purchased land” and “earned their living in various ways” according to William J. Brown in his recollections of Providence. Hard Scrabble was known as a black neighborhood, but white property owners also dwelled there. The neighborhood had its share of black and white owned boarding houses and liquor establishments, frequent targets of those who wanted to “clean up” Providence. In 1821 the captain of the town watch Thomas Hudson criticized the prostitution in the neighborhood. In 1822 Thomas Hull, a black property owner in the area also complained about vice and disorder to the Town Council. Samuel Thurber, who lived on North Main Street near Hardscrabble, protested in the same year to the Town about the neighborhood’s racial and sexual disorder.
The Riot began on October 17, 1824 as a confrontation between young white and black men over the right to use a sidewalk that was not in Hard Scrabble. The lack of deference to whites was a critical part of the problem and soon a large mob gathered at the Great Bridge and proceeded along the canal and began to tear down residences. The houses of blacks and whites (Jesse Brown Sweet) were destroyed or severely damaged. The town’s all volunteer Town Watch, comprised of untrained men like Samuel Allen were responsible for keeping the peace but did nothing to intervene.
The justice system also proved inadequate, or at least confused as to what to do. The Grand Jury indicted only ten of the estimated 50 rioters: one was James Gibbs. Constable John Whipple even had difficulty getting those accused to appear in court. Attorney General Dutee Pearce of Newport, the lead prosecutor, built his case on the rule of law that was necessary to restore public order, but obtained few convictions, little punishment was meted out as Defense Attorney Joseph L. Tillinghast convinced jury members to vote to acquit most of the accused rioters. Defense and prosecution witnesses such as Samuel Staples Jr, Cyrus Cleaveland, David Burr, James T. Rounds, and Daniel Weaver testified at trial mostly to support the defense claim that the rioters were doing a public service by attempting to restore public morals the town seemed unable to provide. No black witnesses were permitted to testify. The prosecutions ended with few convictions and light sentences. This disturbance was the first of two race riots in the Providence.
A brief autobiographical account of the Riot of 1824 can be read in The Life of William J. Brown of Providence, R.I with personal recollections of incidents in Rhode Island (University of New Hampshire Press). Also read Bodies Politics: Negotiating Race in the American North (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), John Wood Sweet. Chapter 3 “Hard Scrabble” is a detailed account of the conditions preceding the Riot, the Trial and events after. Another account of the Hard Scrabble Riot is found in “Social Turmoil and Governmental Reform in Providence, 1820-1832” by Howard P. Chudacoff and Theodore C. Hirt (Rhode Island History 31 (1972): 21-31). Also for additional context for race relations in the 18th and early 19th century read Joanne Pope Melish, Discovering Slavery, (Cornell University Press, 1998).