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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

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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.