Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"black Irish"?

African Americans had a major impact on the culture of the Five Points neighborhood in mid-nineteenth century Manhattan.[1] They never were numerically dominant, however, and from the 1840s on, their numbers declined relative to other groups. This is partly because more of them left than entered the district in those years but also because immigrants from Ireland began to arrive in greater and greater numbers. African American residents moved out partly because their financial success enabled them to but also because mobs had attacked their homes during the first of New York's anti-abolitionist riots in 1834. This organized violence pitted local pro-slavery thugs against a few clerical anti-slavery activists and many unresisting Five Points black residents. The newspapers of the day tended to express outrage about the actions of the mob, as you'd expect, but some claimed to see the abolitionists as instigators as well. None said the African Americans were to blame.[2]

It wasn't long before Five Points became predominantly Irish. This change was documented in a morally-uplifting book of 1869 which praises the "heroic women" who set out to save souls in the Five Points district three decades before. In setting the scene of the Methodist ladies' attempt to overcome unbelief and all its evil consequences, the book profiles the inhabitants of a single block in that teeming neighborhood: "One block contains 382 families. Persons composing these families were, 812 Irish, 218 Germans, 186 Italians, 189 Poles, 12 French, 9 English, 7 Portuguese, 2 Welsh, 39 Negroes, 10 Americans."[3]

The following map, which depicts concentrations of the ethnic groups of Five Points in 1850, shows the predominance of Irish immigrants and low concentration of African Americans. Overall, at that time, more than half the area's residents were Irish. The next-largest immigrant group were the Germans, who were ethnically divided between two groups which had little in common: west-German Christians and east-German Jews.[4]

The Irish who descended on Five Points in the potato-blight years of the '40s and '50s were the most miserable of all Five Points miserable residents. An 1951 article of the New York Tribune described their lot, saying their life in the home country was unbearable, so too was the passage to America, and their experience of New York was just another great trial for them. Here are extracts:
In the [steerage-passage] mode of conveying emigrants, evils have for a long time existed, not the less grievous because they have occupied but little public attention. ... On the Irish Emigrants, and they are by far the most numerous, such miseries fall with the heaviest weight. From the moment one of these leave his home [he suffers an] ordeal to which overruling necessity alone could compel him to submit. To reach this western continent, [the destitute Irish emigrant] must go east to Liverpool. There, confused and overpowered in the bustle of a foreign commercial city, he falls an easy prey to imposition and deceit.

Misery, with increasing bitterness, follows him upon the sea. He remains cooped up for weeks in the dark hold of an emigrant ship where, men and women, huddle together with utter disregard of decency, wear away the wretched hours in hunger, filth, and discomfort, or sicken and die without sympathy or help, often subjected to brutal treatment and exposed to the contagion of vice.

[Finally arriving in America,] he enters on his new career physically and morally degraded, and carries with him into the thronging population of our eastern cities the seeds of pestilence and the example of depravity. With this unhappy preparation he finds himself, on his arrival on these shores, cast into a society of whose condition he knows nothing. Unable to shape his course in a strange land, he lingers in some seaport city, adding to the supply of labor and diminishing its reward, or swelling the tide of vagrancy and pauperism.

-- New-York Daily Tribune, Saturday, September 6, 1851
A few months before this article appeared in the Tribune, a news report in the same paper described the condition of one group of Irish immigrants who later found their way to Five Points:
Destitute Emigrants. — Several destitute emigrants who arrived in this city a few days ago by the ship Montezuma, from Liverpool, were found Monday afternoon in the streets, in a starving condition. They were taken to the [local police station], where they were provided with food, after which they were sent to the Commissioners of Emigration. These emigrants, it appears, were taken out of the poorhouses in Ireland, by Lord Lansdowne."
-- New-York Daily Tribune, Wednesday, March 19, 1851.
These cartoons come from a web page by Christine Haug called The Stereotyping of the Irish Immigrant in 19th Century Periodicals. They're both from the 1850s and both reflect prejudices of the time. The first tells us the Irish are no better than black slaves and the second suggests that they will be a burden on New York social services as they have been on the Irish ones.

{source: victoriana.com}


See also:

Enter the Irish-American by Edward Wakin (iUniverse, 2002)

Irish Immigrants in America

The Stereotyping of the Irish Immigrant in 19th Century Periodicals by Christine Haug



[1] They were economically a bit more successful than their immigrant neighbors, rented much of the dwelling space, and ran many of the grogshops. They also operated popular dance houses where you could watch famous Irish and African American dancers square off against each other in break-down competitions. I wrote about this in my previous post: African Americans in Five Points.

[2] A lot has been written about this riot. Contemporaries deplored the violence and generally sympathised with its victims, but the mercantile and commercial interests tended to see the "abolitionists and amalgamators" as purveyors of "wicked and absurd doctrines" and thus, in part, instigators of the riot. Here are some sources: After the riot, a woman gave news of it to her daughter in a letter that describes African Americans seeking refuge from mob attack. The reference to "the Recorder" is to the judge who presided at the Court of Common Pleas. The writer's brother Richard MacNeven then held that position and was considered to be an "undeviating and uncompromising friend of Ireland" and the mob contained many Irish immigrants in its numbers (fearful that slaves, if freed, would deprive them of jobs). A Vivid Account of the 1834 New York Anti-Abolitionist Riots Jane M. MacNeven. Autograph Letter Signed, “your Mother JMM,” to daughter Rosa P. MacNeven. New York City, July 20, 1834, 4 pp.
During this time [a heat wave in the city] we had the antislavery excitement ... what it might have increased to I know not if the military and civil authorities had not turned out in their strength and put a finale to the scene ... [In this period of] wild excitement and misrule came the sacriligious breaking in of churches and the disturbing and unsheltering of the poor black people who, in reality, are most unoffending on this occasion – during the mob reign your uncle Richard was here one night and left us between twelve and one on his way down just at the head of Anthony street, he met a party of colored women, children and grown boys half frightened out of their senses and flying from the rioters – they entreated the protection of your uncle and a friend who was with him – to save them for mercy sake from their enraged enemies – Brother bid them not to be alarmed but to follow him down to the police where they might remain in safety till morning – they embraced his offer and formed in a group around him pressing so closely upon his heels as almost to inconvenience him – They had proceeded but a little way, when a party of the marauders assailed them in their front – observing your Uncle at the head of his little squad they mistook him for an Abolitionist ‘Down with the abolitionists here they come!’ and they menaced him most feircely when he called out ‘it is the Recorder – don’t you know the Recorder!’ ‘Oh is it the Recorder;’ they cry ‘hurra for the Recorder!’ and with a reiterated cheer they let them all pass – during the interuption, the frightened group pressed to the side of their protector – like a flock of sheep to their shepherd … But all is quiet now and the world goes on smoothly again …
[3] Here are the paragraphs that precede this little inventory.
Persons who perambulate Broadway, on a pleasant day, who look on the elegantly-dressed throng that crowd the pavement, and through the costly plate-glass at the rich goods displayed, would be slow to believe that within a stone's throw squalid want and criminal woe have their abode. Here lie the Fourth and Sixth Wards, so famous in the history of crime in New York. In this locality one walks amid drunkenness, wretchedness, and suffering, within sound of the rumble of Broadway, within sight of the merry, gay, and well-dressed thousands who move up and down this thoroughfare of the city. No pen can describe the homes of the lowly where the New York poor lodge. It is a region of wickedness, filth, and woe. Lodging-houses are under ground, foul and slimy, without ventilation, and often without windows, and overrun with rats and every species of vermin. Bunks filled with decayed rags, or canvas bags filled with rotten straw, make the beds. All lodgers pay as they enter these dark domains. The fee is from five to ten cents, and all are welcome. Black and white, young and old, men and women, drunk and sober, occupy the room and fill the bunks. If there are no beds, lodgers throw themselves on the hard, dirty floor, and sleep till morning. Lodging-rooms above ground are numerous in the narrow lanes, and in the dark and dangerous alleys that surround the Five Points. Rooms are rented from two to ten dollars a month, into which no human being would put a dog, — attics, dark as midnight at noonday, without window or door they can shut, without chimney or stove, and crowded with men, women, and little children. Children are born in sorrow, and raised in reeking vice and bestiality, that no' heathen degradation can exceed.

Every state in the Union, and every nation almost in the world, have representatives in this foul and dangerous locality. Its tenant and cellar population exceed half a million. One block contains 382 families. Persons composing these families were, 812 Irish, 218 Germans, 186 Italians, 189 Poles, 12 French, 9 English, 7 Portuguese, 2 Welsh, 39 Negroes, 10 Americans. Of religious faiths 118 represented the Protestant, 287 were Jews, 160 Catholics; but of 614 children, only 1 in 66 attended any school. Out of 916 adults, 605 could neither read nor write.Sunshine and Shadow in New York by Matthew Hale Smith (1869)
[4] In New York as a whole, Irish immigrants were similarly split between Protestant north and Catholic south, but in Five Points there were almost no northerners. Irish Protestants had arrived earlier, before the Five Points neighborhood existed. Poverty-stricken Irish Catholics had been finding their way to Five Points even before the famine years of the '40s and '50s and their numbers greatly increased during those decades. It was they, of course, to whom critics referred when they groused about "the Irish." On this subject see Five Points: the 19th-century New York City neighborhood that invented tap dance, stole elections, and became the world's most notorious slum by Tyler Anbinder (Simon and Schuster, 2001)

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