Irish and Black Americans: Have the Parallel Lines Finally Met?

Irish immigration to America discrimination

On this St. Patrick’s Day, with a black president in the White House, it is interesting – and maybe even somewhat inspiring – to look back on the way the Irish-American and African-American stories have coursed through our history on parallel lines, each struggling against terrific prejudices and slanders.

In America, the blacks endured 250 years of slavery which persuaded many people, even those like Thomas Jefferson who wished them well, that they were a subhuman species. In Ireland, the Irish endured an even longer ordeal of English oppression, exploitation and ridicule that left them a defeated demoralized people. The ultimate blow to their self respect was the Great Famine of 1847-1851, which saw a million and a half wretched men, women, and children starve to death in fields and ditches while the English feasted on tons of wheat and meat exported from English-owned Irish farms.

Another million and half Irish fled to America. In a country that was largely Protestant, their Roman Catholic religion made these penniless refugees as welcome as a recurrence of the bubonic plague. A stunning 1,107,34 staggered ashore in New York alone during those four terrible years. On the lower East Side, one eyewitness described them jammed into “the oldest and most rickety wooden buildings,” soon called “tenements.”

There were no toilets or running water in these four-story structures. which often housed as many as 250 people. Water came from a pump in the yard, only a few yards from one or two seldom emptied privies. Disease was rampant. Infant mortality was 25%. From 1849-59, 85 percent of the foreign born admitted to Bellevue Hospital were Irish. The situation in Philadelphia, Boston and other cities was no different. In one Boston ward, the average life expectancy was five years.

Irish gangs were everywhere. “A well dressed man venturing into their districts was commonly set upon and murdered or robbed or both before he had gone a block,” one New York observer wrote. Police patrolled their neighborhoods only in groups. Fifty-five percent of those arrested in New York were Irish.

A political party, the Know-Nothings, sprang up with a program of purging the nation of these newcomers. In 1854 they elected six state governors and 75 congressmen and in 1856 won 25% of the presidential vote. “The Negro is black outside,” they shouted. “The Irishman is black inside.” A Boston company advertised “Know-Nothing Soap” — guaranteed to cleanse the native born of Irish stench.

A cartoon portrayed an African American woman telling her children to stop playing in “dat mud! First ting you know you’ll be took for Irish chil’en!” Newspaper ads for jobs bluntly stated: “No Irish need apply.”A Chicago Post editorial summed up Anglo-Saxon detestation. “Scratch a convict or a pauper and the chances are you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic!”

Battered by such loathing, many Irish thought their only hope was migration to the far west, where they might create a more or less separate nation. But the westward movement never caught on. The majority of the Irish saw that America’s free society gave them an opportunity they had never experienced in Ireland. Soon an Irish poet was telling his friends and relations:

New York City Tenements

New York City Tenements

I tell ye not to leave the city
Because ye know t’would be a pity
To see men digging farms and doating
Who should be in the city voting.

The Irish joined the Democratic Party and formed intricate local organizations (mistakenly called machines) that started electing mayors and councilmen in New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities. New York had the most famous organization, Tammany Hall, named after a mythical Indian chief. Their unspoken motto was: Us against Them.The elected Irish appointed fellow Irish to jobs in the police and fire departments and in prisons and hospitals, beginning their rise from the lower to the middle class.

Tens of thousands of other Irish fought the evil undertow of slum life with hard work in the private sector. Almost all toiled as laborers or servants. The men built America’s canals and railroads and laid its sewers, the women scrubbed the floors and washed the dishes of the rich. Others turned to the theater and sports. By 1900, the Irish had won wide acceptance in both fields

In those same years, blacks, free of slavery’s shackles, were struggling against similar prejudice and something even worse — segregation and the loss of the right to vote in the southern states. But leaders like Booker T. Washington helped them find self respect and hope in hard work and professional accomplishments in spite of these barriers. Like the Irish, blacks also began turning to the theater and sports where they won acceptance and distinction, in spite of continued segregation in the sports world.

In the early 20th Century, even as the Irish elected senators and congressmen and achieved affluence in banking, transportation and similar fields, there were unexpected blows. One of the most painful was the rejection of Al Smith when he won the Democratic nomination for president in1928. In spite of his well-earned reputation as a progressive governor of New York, who had helped to ban child labor and win better working conditions in factories, Smith was savagely repudiated by the voters in an overwhelming majority of states because he was an Irish Catholic. But the Irish refused to lose faith in the American idea. Equally important, they jettisoned Tammany’s Us against Them stance and learned to work with other ethnic groups who had also experienced prejudice. Thirty-two years later, John F. Kennedy was elected president and prejudice against the Irish became history.

Black Americans, meanwhile, were buoyed by President Harry Truman’s 1948 integration of the armed forces and the almost simultaneous desegregation of the ranks of professional baseball, football and basketball. The blacks’ rise in these fields and in the theater were remarkably similar to Irish-American gains in the previous century. President Lyndon Johnson pushed landmark civil rights legislation through Congress in 1964. But blacks experienced a crushing disappointment when Martin Luther King spoke in America’s streets and on its television screens in the mid-1960s, changing both white and black hearts and minds — only to be cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

Like the Irish after Al Smith’s repudiation, King’s disciples remained committed to the American system of free elections. They too learned to work with people of other races and ethnic backgrounds. It was no accident that one of the first Democrats to endorse Barack Obama for president was Senator Teddy Kennedy. He was seconded by John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline. They were testifying to Irish-Americans’ memory of—and detestation for—prejudice in American politics.

With Barack Obama in the White House, will prejudice against blacks also become history? It will not disappear overnight. But a solid majority of the 40 million Americans of Irish descent – and even more millions of Americans from other ethnic groups – want to make that change happen as soon as possible.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians . His four grandparents were born in Ireland. He was the consultant and a principal writer of The Irish-American Chronicle, a just-published history of the Irish in the United States

Republished with permission from the History News Network, where it first appeared.


  1. says

    great piece…with African Americans its a bit different, not about being ousted but about being former servants. I find a deep hatred in many blacks 50 years and older. on the other hand I see a complete disregard for whites and racism in general by the maybe 35 and younger group of African-Americans. They laugh when they actually see whites indulge in it. I was dating guy only two months ago and his mother told him he should stick to his own kind. I laughed from my gut, only to realize he took it as me making fun of his mothers ignorance. I guess i was being too uppity. For most AA like myself, its not about race or acceptance, its about being underestimated and oppressed, watching unsmart people advance simply because of their skin color. I have to admit, I enjoy being the smartest person in the room at times and being the AA woman that has all the best answers and ambition feels like i’m redeeming my ancestors’ names, who took crap for so long so that I can succeed and let me tell you, forget about the images that you of AA on television, we are thriving, quietly taking over boardrooms, becoming business owners, my whole family has college degrees (several degrees) AA that focus on the success and not “the man” are some very cunning creatures. Our spirit cant forget the atrocities but we smile and play the game, thinking the whole time…I cant believe these people were bullies to us for so long and the vast majority aren’t even intelligent and have no real confidence in themselves. Race means nothing to me but succeeding in the face of dismissal gives me a tremendous feeling of power. just saying… I did enjoy the few parallels, but being sold and bought for hundreds of years, does something different to a group of people. there is no new land to go to, this is our home. I am grateful for it and grateful for everything my ancestors went through, suffering is not unique but the affects of certain types of long-term suffering are different and will take, I feel another 50 to 100 years to iron out completely. Its like a tumultuous divorce. With some whites and some blacks having yet to sign the decree and sever the ties of superiority and inferiority. 😉

  2. Mickey Malone says

    The Book of Kells, an ancient book of Irish history, shows that in 1588, a few ships were sunk in the Straights of Ireland. From these ships ’22 “dark” men swam ashore” on the island of Ireland. Since the English were engaged in a war with Spain (a country of dark skinned natives) and had hired as seamen the “Moors of North Africa”; Morrocan and African natives of “very dark or “black” coloring the 22 men were most certainly the founders of the true connotation “Black Irish” ; not the politacal one.

    Most generations of Irish decent had family attributes as having brown, red or blond hair with light to dark brown eyes and very fair skin tone. A child born with black hair, straight, kinky or curley, and green or gray mixed eye color, and a darker skin tone was said to be a a decendant of the 22 men who swam aboard in 1588; a true “Black Irish” child.

    My parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents had light to dark brown hair, dark brown eyes and fair skin. The children of my generation; one with black hair, curly, with green/hazel eyes and medium skin. One has strawberry blonde straight hair, light brown eyes, very fair skin; another with straight jet brown hair, very dark brown eyes, very dark skin (passes for Spanisish or African today) and another with straight light brown hair, light brown eyes and medium skin. One tans to a very golden hue; another to very dark brown tone; one “gets black”; one cannot be in the sun.

    Yes, “Catholis need not apply” still existed in New York City in 1955 when I applied for a job. Because of my last name they thought I was Jewish and as I as not asked, I did not volunteer my ethnicity nor my religion. Unfortunately I was “caught” on “Ash Wednesday” when it became obvious that I was not only Irish, but Catholic to boot. I was fired.

    There are thousands of people who can check their DNA and come back shown as the true “Black Irish”.

    • Timothy V Spivey says

      I will first proudly state that i am of african descent , but find myself enjoying music that has an irish tone to it such as van morrisons ” everyone” as well as riverdancing my last name being spivey, and broad taste in music, my liking of a stiff shot of liquor from time to time and the daily thought of protecting myself and family that may entale a good brawl, that in my mind i would dominate no matter how big the opponent , caused me to question my ancestry, why do i relate to riverdancing why did i like to fight in my younger yrs and and where does this cool yet odd last name come from dont get me wrong ,i know who i am as far as my character and personality my friends tell me i’m one of the coolest brotha`s they know probably because i am not tipicle, of any race for that matter but moving along, in short i appreciate your literature on the history of the 22 black irish it makes a few things make since for me, one being that i believe from my military experiences that people of all races and ethnicities have interacted with pretty much all other races on the planet that being said might explain to some white people might find themselves diggin on hip hop and actually have rythm enough to dance to it…i was going to make some t-shirts for my wife and i that say black irish some years back and attend the next st patricks day events but not to offend but to open up the minds of those who dont know their history an dthink that everything good belongs to them we can all learn that if we realized that all mankind has alittle bit of each other in them that we could once and for all get passed hating each others differences and embrace the variety of our similarity, for we all bleed red and come from the the same God so once again thanxs .i’ll feel better about wearin’ my shirts and riverdancin’ to irish music….it’s gotta have a funky beat to it tho’

  3. ofIrishHeritage says

    Man, that was really cool! I loved that piece of history, it's amazing white people, even the Irish who are a very beautiful people have feelings for African Americans. Right on.

  4. says

    I linked over from your Crimson and Clover article to this one, and must now pursue the stirrings you’ve caused in both my spirit and my mind. Thank you, brother!

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