When journalist, author and one-time Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley found out about 19th century race riots in the nation's capital that none of his colleagues at the Post were aware of, he knew this was a story that needed to be told.
He first wrote an article for the Post but discovered there was still more to tell. The end result is Morley’s new book, "Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race-Riot of 1835."
A collection of tales about growing tensions between abolitionists and slavery sympathizers and the high society emerging in Washington, D.C., the book paints a picture that is more like the Wild West than the nation's capital.
"The story I'm going to tell you is about the real start of the Civil War, in the 1830s," Morley explained to the crowd of nearly 50 who assembled at the First State Community Action Agency in Georgetown for a recent book signing. "This is not a shooting war; it's more of an ideological war. This is where we see the true origins of American freedom as we know it."
The author is touring with his new book, and he opened the first of three Delaware book signings he has planned for Black History Month at the First State Community Action Agency in Georgetown.
Morley wove the tales together after researching government records and varied accounts and personal diaries from the era he calls the no-man's-land in American history between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
The book reveals the same Francis Scott Key who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" sympathized with slave owners and didn’t include black people in his vision of "the land of the free." As U.S. attorney general in the decades preceding the Civil War and during the riot, Key was closely linked to the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott decision that deemed black people of African descent, both free and enslaved, were not legal U.S. citizens.
“He is one of our universal heroes,” Morley said. “He used his political fame to advance the pro-slavery agenda, and he was quite unapologetic about it.”
As an important figure in the race riots that erupted when white women claimed they had been insulted by a free black restaurant owner, and a prominent Washington socialite was frightened by the sight of a slave’s son in her room one night, Key acted to prosecute even after victims recanted their stories.
Bernice Edwards, executive director of the First State Community Action Agency, encouraged the audience to pick up one of the books and enrich their knowledge of American history with this little-known prequel to the Civil War.
“Read it,” Edwards said. “It tells a story none of us would have otherwise known about.”
Morley sold out of the books he brought for the Georgetown event and two more signings planned in Delaware this month. His next signing is to take place at 6 p.m., Monday, Feb. 25, at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.
Morley’s final book signing for Black History Month is in Dover at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 28, in the Longwood Auditorium at Delaware State University.
"Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835" is also available on Amazon.com and other online booksellers.