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Book Report: Exposing the underbelly of old D.C.

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It's no secret that talent runs in families. Years ago I worked with Anthony Morley on the Minneapolis Tribune.

Tony was a brilliant writer, working on the editorial page and known for his charming and whimsical essays about talking to his neighbors at the bus stop where he waited for a ride to work.

One day he let drop that his uncle was Christopher Morley...Christopher Morley (1890-1957). That's the big time.

Morley was a well-known aphorist who had a talent for coming up with great lines like, "There was so much handwriting on the wall that even the wall fell down.

Another of my favorites: "Why do they put the Gideon Bibles only in the bedrooms, where it's usually too late, and not in the barroom downstairs?"

I recently received a book that's getting fine reviews.

It's by Jefferson Morley, the Washington columnist for Salon. He dedicates the book to his father, Tony Morley.

"Snow-Storm in August" (Doubleday, $28.95) is a book you can't put down because it's crammed with interesting details about a city and a citizenry that we think we know a lot about, but not as much as Morley does, and it's written with the grace and style of Jefferson Morley's forbears.

The city is Washington, D. C.

The citizenry includes President Andrew Jackson, D.C. District Attorney and national anthem writer Francis Scott Key. And a cast of minor characters, both black and white.

I've read several recollections of Washington, D.C. in the old days, including Gore Vidal's remembrances of growing up there in the 1930s with no air conditioning, etc.

Morley takes us back further to 1835 and the Jacksonian era, when the town was just getting its start.

The streets were muddy, the mosquitoes terrible and big glossy capitol buildings were placed cheek by jowl with saloons and whorehouses on streets where it was unsafe to traverse after dark. (Still isn't, probably.)

D.C. was different than most southern cities back then because more than half of the blacks in the city were free and went about their business (almost) as if they were white.

One such black was Beverly Snow, who operated a fancy restaurant in the heart of the city that served politicians and tourists to fancy dishes like terrapin and other delicacies. He also had abolitionist ideas and with other freed slaves lobbied for freedom.

Opposed to these folks were President Jackson and a passel of whites who were beginning to feel a bit of discomfort about the morality of slaveholding.

Among them was D.C. attorney general Francis Scott Key, who didn't want to free slaves. He just wanted to send them back to Africa where they belonged.

One night Arthur Bowen, a disgruntled young slave left a saloon, drunk, and entered the home of his owner, Anna Thornton, widowed wife of the designer of the U.S. Capitol and perhaps the father of Arthur.

He approached her bedroom, carrying an axe. She awoke and her other servant, the young slave's mother talked him out of the axe.

The kid was thrown in jail and the very ambitious Francis Scott Key stepped into the picture, wanting to charge him with attempted murder, even though Mrs. Thornton wished to forget about the incident.

Racial conflict ensued, fueled by white abolitionists like Benjamin Lundy and his assistant William Lloyd Garrison and John Francis Cook, a black man whose offspring eventually helped found Howard University.

Here, Key showed his true colors. (Morley points out that "The Star Spangled Banner" has unfavorable references to blacks in its middle stanzas, claiming slaves wanted to aid the invading British during the War of 1812.)

Eventually Key lost the case, lost his influence and the drive toward emancipation had begun.

Morley does a masterful job of telling this story and tops it off with an account of Barack Obama's inauguration day parade, in which the country's first mixed-race president stopped at the site where Beverly Snow's epicurean restaurant once stood.

"Spirit of the Ojibwe," by Sara Balbin, James E. Bailey and Thelma Navquoonabe is just out from Holy Cow! Books ($28.95).

It's a beautifully mounted paperback about the elders of the La Courte Oreilles tribe and how they preserved their culture despite the discouragements offered by the whites who robbed them of their land. James and Susan Lenfestey's Outagamie Charitable Foundation bankrolled this project, which includes colored art and photos.