Absences in the Archive

For such a violent episode in the history of a relatively small city, there is a shocking absence of both historical records and cultural products of the Hard Scrabble and Snow Town riots. Ray Rickman, former President of the Rhode Island Black Historical Society, writes that this is not uncommon of violent episodes against African Americans in the North, and that the absence of these two riots from the archive signify the amnesia of possibly hundreds more. Most, he feels, were smaller events – fights between a few people rather than the neighborhood-engulfing events that Hard Scrabble and Snow Town became.[1]  Nonetheless, this absence in the archive signifies the fragility of histories that contradict a dominant civic narrative.

Unknown, How to Escape the Draft, 1863. Harper’s Weekly.

Though occurring half a century later, the New York City draft riots and the visual culture that exists as a documentation of the riots provide a model for how Hard Scrabble and Snow Towns might have looked had they been recorded. Originally a protest against the Civil War draft, the New York City draft riots turned into race riots when white protestors turned their attention from the Union Army to the city’s black residents, targeting both pedestrians and property. The riot had long-term consequences, with many of Manhattan’s black residents moving permanently to Brooklyn.[2]  Many engravings depicting the riots still exist, including the image above that originally ran as a cartoon in Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Here, the anonymous artist captures the violence of the riot in sketchy, angular lines.


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[1] Liza Yeager, “Rosy-Colored Eyeglass People,” April 7, 2016, accessed May 8, 2017, http://www.nowherethis.org/track/rosy-colored-eyeglass-people/.

[2] Robert C. Kennedy, “On This Day: August 1, 1863,” The New York Times, 2001, , accessed May 10, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0801.html.

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