The city of Philadelphia wasn’t what it claimed to be. But after four years of living here with her father, Charlotte knew there was a lot of that going around. It was unseasonably warm that November morning in Washington Square Park, enough to leave Charlotte and her friend Nell sweating under their dresses even as amber and gold leaves crunched beneath their feet. In Philadelphia, a stray hot day was as good as summer, when folks would gather at parks and carousels and crowd onto the cobblestone streets in messy, loud-talking clumps that circled and melted into one another. But warm weather also meant rioting season: when all the city’s resentments between Black and white, freedman and immigrant, working folks and the struggling poor boiled over. Though the near-holy parchment at Independence Hall claimed all men were equal, the words told only half the story—in the heat, the city’s people rarely shied from acting out the rest. And in the cooler months after all the ruckus, the city would hush and turn itself inward, with everyone huddled into stately brick town houses and tumbledown back-alley tenements alike, as if embarrassed by all the thrashing and carrying on.
Charlotte had seen the same cycle play out for four years going, and that morning she knew that all the conditions were ripe for a mob scene. Still, as she and Nell sat together fanning themselves a few rows back from the open-air wooden stage waiting for Mr. Robert Purvis’s speech to start, she was lulled into a fool’s sense of safety.
After all, it had been Nell’s idea to attend. With her hair pulled back into a neat bun, two perfectly curled tendrils framing her deep brown face, and an immaculate lace shawl draped over her lavender wool and silk dress with pleated sleeves, Nell looked every inch the daughter of the city’s monied Black elite—not the sort of woman you’d expect to lead you into a street tussle. Beside her, Charlotte self-consciously smoothed down her drab gray housemaid uniform. The color did nothing for her tawny brown complexion, but even such a sorry palette didn’t dim the natural prettiness of her face: deep mauve lips shaped in a Cupid’s bow beneath the wide-set mahogany eyes she’d inherited from her father. Those were among the many things he’d given her that she’d never asked for.
These days, Charlotte was in the habit of going more or less wherever Nell suggested, if only to get out of the little row house on Fourth Street that her father—no, boss—meant to serve as both her charge and her cage.
“I’m so pleased you decided to come,” Nell said, “but are you certain your employer won’t mind you stepping away from your duties this morning?”
“He’d have to notice before he paid it any mind,” Charlotte said. Lately her father was far too wrapped up in his work to have any idea what she got up to while he was at the workshop, which was just how Charlotte liked it.
“Well then, I suppose neither of us exactly has permission to be here,” said Nell, leaning over conspiratorially. “I let my mother think I was off to meet with my sewing circle.”
Charlotte laughed. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Though she and Nell ought not have been there in the first place—in their parents’ eyes, anyhow—at the start there hardly seemed anything to worry about. The gathering was only meant to be a simple public talk, but the topic was a touchy one. Pennsylvania might be a free state, but that didn’t always amount to much—the state legislature was floating a plan to strip free Black men of the vote, and to hear Nell tell it, Mr. Purvis was one of the scheme’s fiercest critics. That’s why the sight of him was such a shock. When the clock struck eleven, a tall, slim man with olive-colored skin and deep brown, wavy hair strode across the stage dressed in a finely tailored deep blue morning jacket with the chain of a gold watch glinting from his breast pocket. Charlotte gasped so sharply at the sight of him that Nell leaned over to ask if she was unwell. She gave a shaky nod in reply, but couldn’t stop staring.
If Mr. Purvis had taken a notion to pass for white, he’d have fooled most anyone who saw him. But from the very first lines of his speech, it was clear the man’s interests didn’t run across the color line in that direction. Charlotte listened intently as he held forth for nearly an hour in a voice both elegant and booming, laying into the state legislators who held out their left hand to collect taxes from free Black Pennsylvanians even as the right hand busily drafted more laws that insulted their dignity—“the dignity of colored people like me,” he declared. Before long, his speech waded into the thick of things: slavery, and what the government owed to the freedmen and fugitive slaves who poured into the city by the hundreds.
The audience in the park was rapt. Trouble was, they weren’t the only ones listening. Mr. Purvis’s words carried onto the sidewalks surrounding the little corner of Washington Square Park, and before long, Charlotte realized that nearly three dozen passersby—all white, mostly men—had slowly filled in around the audience. A handful loomed behind the stage as well, with their hardened, unmoving stares fixed on the man at the podium.
Even as they pressed in closer, Nell was too much in her element to notice, constantly leaning over to Charlotte and whispering helpful facts to put the speech in context. Charlotte knew more about the subject of slavery than her genteel friend realized, but far be it from her to deprive Nell of a teaching opportunity. Nell knew her only as a housemaid, and that made their keeping company strange enough without bringing up the small matter of Charlotte’s also being a runaway slave.
As Purvis drilled in on making the city safe for abolitionists and the fugitives forced into the shadows by fear, Charlotte’s mouth went dry. She suddenly felt sure that everyone could tell—that she was marked. Was the earthy musk of the plantation cabin’s hard dirt floors still hanging on her skin, even after these years away? Could people spy a house slave’s stooped back and shuffling steps in her walk? And in the shape of her utterly plain garments, Charlotte could almost trace the pattern of a slave’s linen rags—how easily must everyone else see it? Her cheeks burned.
But she hardly had time to stew in her shame, because when Mr. Purvis reached the section of his speech calling for the legislature to punish rogue slave catchers, his words were a spark on a pile of dried leaves. The white men’s agitated murmurs picked up, until finally someone snarled, “Shut your mouth, you high-yellow sonuvabitch!”
Mr. Purvis put up his hands and called for calm, but not a second later, a sharp gray rock hit him square in the shoulder and another only narrowly missed his head. He stumbled back as a gang of white men rushed in toward the stage and the crowd alike. The mob started to grab Black men from the outer rows of the audience and beat them mercilessly, raining down blows with fists and folding chairs. Charlotte and Nell, frozen in their seats, looked at each other. They were women, but no less Black, and mobs weren’t in the habit of making distinctions—they had to get away. Now. They scrambled up and ran.
In the rush, Charlotte tripped and smacked her face on the leg of an overturned chair. The sharp pain pierced deep into her cheekbone, throbbing even as she and Nell dashed for the street. But before they could get out of the park, they were met with a wall of twisted, screaming faces. Raging men grasped at them, blasting hot, sour breath into Charlotte’s nose. One man’s filthy hand tore the sleeve half off her dress, adding the pop of ripping threads to the overwhelming racket of the brawling around them. Incredibly, Nell started shouting back into the men’s faces, apparently convinced they’d give way after a loud but polite request. “Move aside, please! Excuse me!” When they finally pushed through an opening in the crowd, Nell and Charlotte took off running down the block. Behind them, the brittle sound of breaking wood cut through the shouting as the rioters tore apart the stage, smashed the folding chairs, and tossed them into a pile for kindling. Of course—fire. Always fire.
Charlotte and Nell ran for several blocks, until Charlotte’s chest was ready to explode. When they finally reached Chestnut Street, it was quiet enough for them to stop and catch their breath, but Charlotte scanned the area warily. Dangerous as the city streets could be, the rioters weren’t her only worry. Her father’s woodworking shop was blocks away, but even a city as grand as Philadelphia seemed dangerously small when the person you were trying to avoid might be around any corner.
Copyright © 2024 by Ashton Lattimore. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.