The Divide Between Blacks and the Irish

From our archives: A St. Patrick's Day primer on how two groups of Americans who were once close parted over slavery.

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Getty Images

Black workers had traditionally been an important part of the waterfront workforce in New York, Philadelphia and other northern cities, as well as Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans and other Southern ports. In 1850, Irish laborers in New York demanded the dismissal of a black laborer who was working alongside them.

During the strike of 1852 and again in 1855, 1862 and 1863, Irish longshoremen battled black workers who had been brought in to take their places. The underlying cause of the New York Riot of 1863, misnamed the Draft Riot, was the employment of black workers on the docks. According to one historian, in Philadelphia, as in New York, “Irish gangs not only drove blacks out of jobs, they also served as surrogate unions.” There, the race riot of 1849 and the longshore strike of 1851 were simply different tactical phases of the same struggle.

In August 1862, a largely Irish mob in Brooklyn attacked the black employees, chiefly women and children, who were working in a tobacco factory. The mob, having driven the black employees to the upper stories of the building, then set fire to the first floor. The factory was allowed to reopen only when the employer promised to dismiss the Negroes and hire Irish.

Irish attitudes toward the free Negro in the North led them to oppose abolition. In 1838 an Irish mob burned just-completed Pennsylvania Hall, built by subscription to serve as a center for abolitionist meetings. It was not that the Irish supported slavery: They would have been happy to see slavery abolished, provided all the black folk could have been kept on the plantations or shipped out of the country altogether. Since such an outcome could not be guaranteed, throughout the 19th century they were solid supporters of the Democratic Party, which before the Civil War protected slavery in the South and after the War sought to restrict the rights of the freed people.

Some have pointed to competition for jobs as the cause of Irish animosity toward blacks. But in the wage system, all workers compete for jobs. It is not free competition that leads to enduring animosity but its absence. The competition among Irish and black laborers failed to lead to unity because it did not take place under normal labor market conditions but was distorted by the color line. However much the Irish were oppressed as a race in Ireland and exploited as workers in America, once landed in Boston, New York or Philadelphia, they enjoyed one marked advantage over refugees from Southern slavery: No one was chasing them with dogs.

A few years back, I was the guest on a radio call-in show; one of the callers, identifying himself as Irish American, asked, “If we made it, why couldn’t they?” What most appalled me about his question — more than the willful ignorance it showed of how the white-skin privilege system had operated — was his belief that he had “made it.”

If his experience was like that of most “white” working-class Americans, “making it” meant a job he hated and was afraid to lose; a house that was falling down around him; and two weeks’ vacation a year spent either fixing it up or breathing noxious fumes on a highway clogged with motor vehicles on their way to stand in line at an amusement park, in the company of a spouse with whom he has nothing in common and children who hate him. Imagine how different the outcome might have been had his Irish ancestors chosen to act differently a century ago.

Noel Ignatiev is the author of How the Irish Became White.

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