Excerpted from Chapter One
Beverly Snow did not look like trouble, not hardly. He was a mild--mannered fellow of mixed--race heritage—-in the lingo of the day, a mulatto. The admixture of African and European blood in his veins gave an air of incongruous humor to his countenance. His language was learned, if a little extravagant, for he knew his way around a kitchen and loved to pass cooking time in conversation. To the patrons, white and colored alike, who gathered at his oyster house in the tobacco town of Lynchburg, Virginia, Beverly held forth more as a Creole raconteur than discontented bondsman. In the autumn of 1829, he was certainly better known for his way with words and white men than for any sort of difficulty. He humored the hungry with a steady stream of jokes and japes while doling out fat James River oysters and dispensing a variety of sage epigrams, dubious puns, and enigmatic epiphanies at no extra charge. The fare was salubrious, the conversation light, the prices lighter. That was Beverly’s way.
While it was true that not all white men approved of a colored man doing business in the heart of town, it was more true that Beverly’s friends, John and Susannah Warwick, approved of his enterprise. In Lynchburg that was enough. John was the son of Major William Warwick, a Revolutionary War veteran turned banker who had served as the first mayor of the settlement around John Lynch’s ferry landing back in 1805. Susannah was the daughter of Captain William Norvell, a veteran of Valley Forge and the village’s first clerk. John and Susannah Warwick owned Beverly Snow, but ownership hardly described Susannah’s relationship to him. Beverly was also her friend, almost a big brother.
Beverly had lived for at least a few years in Captain Norvell’s mansion on Federal Hill, the most distinguished enclave in the growing town. Nothing is known of Beverly’s parents other than that one of them, probably his father, was white. Unusually for an enslaved person, Beverly learned to read and write at an early age, perhaps because Captain Norvell had helped establish the first public school in Lynchburg. Along the way, Beverly might have glimpsed one of the great men of the day, former president Thomas Jefferson, who sold a plot of land to William Norvell in 1812. Legend has it that Jefferson visited their house. Beverly, as a servant and cook, might have prepared his meals, perhaps even overheard his conversation. The servant and the statesman would come to share at least one pastime. Jefferson often digressed on his admiration for Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who espoused a creed of pleasurable moderation in the third century before Christ. Before long, Beverly Snow would do the same.
Susannah Norvell, five years younger than Beverly, came of age eating his food and laughing at his jokes. A sensitive dark--haired beauty, she married John Marshall Warwick, the son of her father’s friend, when she was seventeen years old. She endowed her husband’s mustachioed placidity with the drive of self--improvement, and the young couple flourished. John Warwick had worked in the family dry-goods business since boyhood. As early as 1816, his name appeared on a bill of sale to Jefferson. At age twenty--one John obtained his merchant’s license and turned his attention to tobacco, the cash crop of the hilly counties surrounding Lynchburg. The leafy plant was grown in abandon, bundled into fifteen--hundred--pound hogsheads, inspected, and sold to traders who shipped the leaf to Europe, where segars and pipe smoking were all the rage. Enslaved Africans did most of the work to create this pleasure. White men reaped all of the profits. John Warwick did better than most. He was a rich man well before his thirtieth birthday. His wife had a harder time. Susannah Warwick gave birth to four children, three of whom died before the age of three. In her sorrow, she liked to write and dream of a better world. She loathed the institution of slavery and was unafraid to say so. “It is a stain upon the character of Virginians,” she wrote in her journal, “and one which I hope will not long remain.”
In 1824, Susannah’s father prepared his will. At the time, Captain Norvell owned several Negro families, including twenty--six people. He granted each of his six children the right to take possession of any two. Susannah chose Beverly. By the next year, he had moved in with the Warwicks. In 1826, the couple announced their success to Lynchburg society by building a Federal--style brick house on Court Street along the high bluff overlooking the James River. Beverly perfected his cooking skills in the basement kitchen. He also took a wife, a soon--to--be--free colored girl six years his junior who was known to white people as Judy. She called herself Julia.
Beverly and Julia Snow lived in the same house as John and Susannah Warwick, sharing something of their prosperity and of their sadness. Beverly saw how John coped with the loss of his babies: by serving others. When Lynchburg formed its first board of health in 1828, John became a member. Eventually, John Warwick, like his father, would become the mayor of Lynchburg. With John and Susannah’s support, Beverly and Judy opened the oyster house on Lynch Street to serve customers and workers at John’s nearby tobacco warehouse and others who thronged the busy wharf. It was the kind of informal agreement between owners and bondsmen not unknown in well--established families in Virginia. Beverly, while still the property of his mistress, had permission to keep at least some of the money his customers handed over.
Beverly’s wit soon set the people of Lynchburg to laughing. One tale concerned the Cargills, a strolling family theatrical company that had arrived in 1828. Beverly was not alone in admiring their considerable style. The Cargills arrived in carriages and buggies, while their wardrobes came in baggage wagons. As stage performers, the Cargills were truly distinguished, the locals agreed, not at all resembling the disreputable Crummieses, the acting family lampooned in Charles Dickens’s just--published novel Nicholas Nickleby. Mr. Cargill was a gentleman, and Mrs. Cargill was ladylike and educated. Their daughter, the beautiful Mary, was comely, beloved, and respected. They delighted the town with their comic and tragic performances for much of a year.
Then one morning, Lynchburg awoke to find the Cargills had vanished. The stunned townspeople discovered they would have to pay for their happy suspension of belief about the Cargills’ dramatis personae. The strolling actors had strolled off without a nod to friends or creditors. The young studs who lamented the loss of the phenomenal Mary did not suffer long. But the Cargills’ many business associates did. Those who had provided food and drink, bed and board to these consummate actors could only shake their unpaid bills in impotent fury. When one man wondered aloud how the spendthrift thespians had escaped, Beverly nodded toward the James River.
“I believe, sir,” he sighed, “that the play--actors have concluded to glide smoothly down the stream,” which was certainly one of the greatest euphemisms ever uttered in Lynchburg.
Beverly Snow tasted politics in the summer of 1828 when Secretary of State Henry Clay came to Lynchburg. John Warwick formed a welcoming committee to hail the Kentucky statesman who would pursue the presidency of the United States of America without success for the next three decades. John supported Clay’s “American System,” in which the national government in Washington would use tax and tariff revenues to build roads and canals and make other internal improvements that would enable the people of the young republic to wrest a living from the virgin forests and rolling plains once occupied by the native Indians. To many Lynchburg merchants, Henry Clay’s plan was common sense. New roads and canals would fortify the town’s position as a commercial center between the eastern seaboard and the western frontier.
Beverly Snow, it is safe to say, was less enamored of the slick operator some called “Harry of the West.” When it came to people of color, Clay was a supporter of African colonization. This was a popular scheme of the day that proposed to end the blight of chattel slavery in the United States of America by freeing the enslaved and sending them to settle the western coast of Africa. While the supporters of colonization prided themselves on their humanitarianism toward Negroes, theirs was a benevolence wrapped in a prejudice that Henry Clay voiced as well as any man. Clay especially reviled those Africans in America who had managed to gain their legal freedom. “Of all classes of our population, the most vicious is that of the free colored,” Clay liked to say. “Contaminated themselves, they extend their vices to all around them.”
Beverly had no use for such insults. He planned to obtain his freedom within two years and he had other destinations in mind besides Africa. Despite the practice of slavery and the common condescension articulated by the likes of Clay, Beverly was not eager to leave the country where he was born. Truth be told, he often enjoyed life in these United States. In central Virginia, the families of slaves and masters had been intertwined for generations. Countless children of African and European blood, like Susannah Norvell and Beverly Snow, had grown up as siblings, playmates, friends, rivals, and every other human bond. By the early 1800s, the bonds of decency and familiarity, combined with the revolutionary ideology of the War for Independence, had prompted a growing number of white men to let their bondsmen buy their freedom. Some whites freed their slaves in their wills. Others promised freedom to their children. Those were the terms that Beverly had been born into: with a promise of manumission when he reached the age of thirty.
Beverly Snow embodied the reality of America’s race--mixing ways. While the “amalgamation” of whites and blacks was often abhorred, it was also indulged. To cite but one common practice among white people, most white mothers preferred African women to Irish women as wet nurses for their children, finding them altogether more agreeable, affectionate, and trustworthy than their Hibernian counterparts. White men, alas, had baser impulses. They wanted women of color as mistresses, concubines, whores, and occasionally as wives. Beverly, along with plenty of other people, knew the story of Richard Mentor Johnson, a famous Indian fighter turned U.S. senator from Kentucky. Johnson lived openly with a mulatto woman named Julia Chinn, who bore him two daughters of whom he was quite proud. Johnson offended the finer ladies of Frankfort, Kentucky—-and made news nationally—-by attempting to introduce the two girls at a Fourth of July cotillion in 1828. They were rejected by the other white mothers over Johnson’s indignant protests. When Chinn died, Johnson took up with another enslaved African woman named Parthene. While scandalous to the moralists of press and pulpit, Johnson’s domestic arrangements did not impede the upward arc of his political career. And colored men wanted white women. They risked brutal punishment or death for observing, much less sampling, the charms of white women, which didn’t mean that more than a few black fools didn’t try. Among the lowest classes of whites, some women were notorious for favoring Africans as lovers. The less scrupulous among them used their wiles to extract money favors from the duller Negroes. Even the white man’s most savage treatment of these aspiring Othellos—-and the white woman’s shaming of their sisterly Desdemonas—-could not extirpate such forbidden desires. Coupling and procreating had a stubborn pride that disregarded taboo and teaching. It was natural that Beverly Snow’s mother had named him after a white man, Beverley Randolph, who had served as Virginia’s eighth governor in 1788. By heritage and upbringing, Beverly lived in a racially mixed society that pretended it was anything but.
The question facing Beverly in 1829 was whether he should stick around Lynchburg or seek his fortune elsewhere. Beverly needed no reminder that his thirtieth birthday was approaching. If the good news was that he would soon be free, the bad news was that the Commonwealth of Virginia required his removal. According to an 1806 statute, any enslaved person of African descent who obtained his or her freedom had to leave the state within a year or else “be apprehended and sold” back into slavery. Beverly could remain in Lynchburg only if a white man petitioned the state legislature for permission. With an owner as friendly as Susannah Warwick, Beverly might have been able to stay if he wanted. Instead he made plans to depart.
Lynchburg had little to offer a free man of color. The slave traders supplying the tobacco planters with coerced Negro laborers dominated the town’s life. A carpenter from the area named Pleasant Roane summed up the appalling difficulties he faced at that time. The free black man, Roane said, was “denied the use and enjoyment of many of the most valuable rights and privileges of freemen [and] subjected in all cases of offences to the most vigorous exactions of penal law.” As a result, he added, most free blacks sank into “a state of contempt and degradation.”
Beverly figured Washington City could not treat him worse than that. The capital lay in the District of Columbia, located 180 miles northeast of Lynchburg, a ride of several days by coach. Such proximity generated some awareness of its attractions and dangers. Yes, the capital city was known as a perennially indebted municipality of dubious morals. Yes, its haphazard streets and well--hidden charms evoked laughter among European tourists and Virginia squires alike. And yes, there were stories of free colored men who had visited the capital of liberty only to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. But the capital was changing. In the recent presidential election, General Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, had won more votes than incumbent John Quincy Adams. The first westerner elected to the presidency, Jackson was inaugurated in March 1829 before a vast and adoring crowd. If nothing else, Beverly and Julia could live and work there legally. The capital beckoned not as a promised land but as a refuge, a haven where a colored man just might have room enough to prove himself.
In November 1829, Beverly’s day came. Susannah Norvell Warwick did her part to end the stain of slavery on herself and her state by agreeing to manumit her bondsman. Beverly and her husband walked two blocks to the Lynchburg courthouse, where John handed the justice of the peace a handwritten deed of freedom. The justice of the peace copied its standard language into a big bound volume. In exchange for five dollars, John Warwick attested that he did “emancipate, set free, and relinquish all Manner of right to the personal Services of my man Slave Beverly, commonly called Beverly Snow.”
John Warwick signed the deed and set his seal in red wax. Snow walked out onto Court Street a free American.
Excerpted from Snow-Storm in August by Jefferson Morley. Copyright © 2013 by Jefferson Morley. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.