Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary

Michelle Kennedy

December 1995

Antebellum Richmond

Many historians, with the exception of Ira Berlin and Herbert Gutman, have shied away from examining the relations of the Irish and blacks in antebellum Richmond possibly because as David Roediger illustrates in The Wages of Whiteness, the societal position of the Irish during the early nineteenth century is difficult to pinpoint. On the surface, the existence of a close relationship between the Irish and blacks seems improbable as a result of legal and social barriers. Laws, such as the Black Codes, symbolize the attempt of city authorities to preserve the sharp distinction between black and white. In addition, the meager percent of Irish in antebellum Richmond with respect to the entire population shadows the Irish immigrants' true potential to influence the black race and vice versa. In fact, it is the concentration of Irish immigrants in the unskilled stratum of the work force as opposed to the entire population which has to be examined in order to discover how the Irish could blur the once rigid racial barriers. Further evidence from the 1850's highlights the occurrence of intermingling between Irish and blacks at work, in the neighborhoods, in the grog shops, and in the theaters despite the opposing legal restrictions and social codes. At the time, the apparentness of this interaction sparked the equation of the Irish with the "dark race" rather than the white race. The informal associations between the Irish and blacks led to ideological influence of each group over the other. The Irish and blacks were united in a common bondage, labor. Echoing the cries against black slavery were shouts deriding wage slavery. Therefore, the importance of freedom was magnified for both Irish and black laborers. It was particularly evident at the start and through the course of the Civil War that the shared plight and desire for freedom of the Irish and blacks caused an attack on one man's liberty to be viewed as a threat to the liberty of all. This fear also serves as a possible explanation for the incipient racism of the Irish. If the Irish could separate themselves from blacks, their freedom was in less jeopardy. Yet, the association between the Irish and blacks would not be easily erased in the minds of Richmond's people. As Frederick Douglass said, " 'in assuming our avocation he [the Irishman] also assumed our degradation.' "

Although only one free Southerner in fifteen had been born outside of the United States as the Civil War approached, immigrants typically dominated the free male laboring population and constituted a significant proportion of the entire male laboring population, free and slave. Furthermore, foreign-born white workmen were the most rapidly growing group in Richmond between 1850 and 1860. Therefore, immigrants were instrumental in molding social relations in the urban South. Immigrants, as a whole, penetrated the lower ranks of the "free social hierarchy." As a result, the laboring class was more heterogeneous than the upper social stratums of antebellum Richmond.

With the exception of the Irish, the majority of foreign-born workingmen were skilled workers. In Richmond, ninety percent of the British and German workingmen practiced skilled crafts. Irish immigrants generally dominated the ranks of unskilled free laborers throughout the urban South. Greater than forty percent of the free unskilled workers in Richmond had been born in Ireland. Only eight percent of the unskilled work force consisted of Southern born whites. Immigrants of other nationalities, free blacks, and slaves constituted the remainder of the unskilled work force. Irish labor sometimes served as a favorable alternative to slave labor. If a task was life-threatening, such as ditching and draining plantations or building levies, it was appointed to an Irishman before a valuable black slave. As a result, the Irish, to some extent, were viewed as inferior to blacks. In Richmond in 1860, seventy-six percent of the unskilled free workingmen were Irish and free blacks. In fact, of this seventy-six percent, the Irish constituted forty-six percent. Although the proportion of Irish immigrants in respect to the entire Richmond population was not overwhelming, the concentration of Irish in the unskilled stratum of the work force was significant. The Irish immigrants' dominance in this stratum of antebellum Richmond society suggests that the opportunity for interaction with blacks, the other major constituents of the unskilled labor force, existed.

Blacks and Irish, furnished with the same economic means and in the absence of residential segregation, lived in close proximity. A study of the first thousand inhabitants of Henrico County, documented in the 1850 census, reveals that five to ten percent of the inhabitants were Irish or black laborers who could claim the other as a neighbor. James Farrell, an Irishman, and Robert Greene, a free black, lived within two houses of each other and engaged in the same work. A grocer, Nathaniel Marks, was their neighbor. His grocery or groggery most likely provided a common meeting place for Farrell and Greene and other Irishmen and blacks in the neighborhood or surrounding areas. William Dougherty, an Irishman, and William Col, a free black, were neighbors who also shared a great number of similarities. Dougherty was thirty-five at the time of the 1850 census, and Col was thirty-one. Both men were involved in the same type of labor. A grocer also lived near these men, Robert Badhims, age 23. Grocers heavily populated the neighborhoods shared by blacks and Irish providing a place to socialize. George Neeholson, a forty-six year-old grocer lived next to two mulatto barbers who may, also, have been responsible for more open communication between the blacks and Irish in the area. Typically, the ages of the members of the households were relatively uniform to the ages of others in the neighborhood, whether black or Irish. For instance, families commonly located in one area and single men or couples in another area, similarities which most likely provoked conversations and understanding between the groups regardless of skin color. In one case, the families of a black carpenter and an Irish carpenter shared the same house.

The proximity of the Irish and blacks must have been a shocking observation to men and women indoctrinated in Southern ideals of white supremacy and black inferiority. The only reasonable explanation must have been rooted in "nativist folk wisdom" which "held that an Irishman was a 'nigger' inside out." Much talk and gossip must have ensued in the face of the risque association between Irish and blacks. In fact, suspicions of interracial sex, particularly between Irish women and black men, were prevalent in antebellum Richmond. Yet, evidence which confirms the suspicions proves to be scarce. Marriages between native Virginians were reported in the Richmond Times Dispatch nearly every day; whereas evidence of interracial marriages or simply reports of mixing between women and men from diverse racial groups was almost nonexistent. One case was found in the 1850 census of Henrico County which appears to be evidence of an interracial marriage. George Fraismeirg is married to Mary. George Fraismeirg was a thirty-three year-old German grocer. Mary Fraismeirg is a thirty-four year-old African-American. This instance of interracial marriage colors the contrasts in the ideologies of Southern-born whites and immigrants.

Laws were erected to prevent the outward expression of foreign ideologies particularly those in respect to liberty which could destroy the foundation of the Southern economy. The Virginia legislature passed a law in the 1850's which symbolized an attempt to monitor the activities of the poor, the segment of society which included a significant number of Irish and blacks: The Common Council was allowed to erect or provide suitable hospitals, work-houses, houses of correction and houses for the reception and maintenance of the poor and destitute. It was directed to exercise exclusive authority over all persons within the limits of the city receiving or even those merely entitled to the benefit of the poor-laws. The council had the power to appoint overseers of the poor and prescribe for the time and the manner in which persons could be confined in or employed at the government-established facilities. The Common Council could punish anyone who did not comply with its rules and regulations. Sections of the law pertaining to governance over the activities of the poor suggest that the leaders felt the need to censure certain activities, such as unlawful assemblages, the mixing of different racial groups. Such an unlawful assemblage was reported in the Richmond Times Dispatch on January 27, 1852: "The indefatigable Captain Jinkins with a posse of watchmen made another descent Saturday night between ten and eleven upon an unlawful assembly of negroes and white men, gathered in the back and front rooms of the old 'Bird in Hand,' situated near the foot of Church Hill." Providing needed living facilities over which the government had authority equipped the leaders of Richmond with a more substantial claim to intervene in the lives of those who accessed the resources.

The greatest integration between different groups, one historian has suggested, most likely occurred in the presence of the vices of drinking and prostitution. Grog shops and gambling halls were popular social gathering spots for both blacks and whites in the city. " A grand jury of the Richmond Hustings Court registered the following complaint in 1795, ' We are sensibly affected . . . seeing almost hourly proofs of the increasing corruption of morals and other injuries flowing from the permission of negro dancing where persons of all colours are too often assembled . . . .' " Laws symbolized attempts to prevent both free blacks and slaves from congregating, gambling, and attending cockfights and horse races.City ordinances prohibited a slave from roaming through the streets without a pass granted by his master, thereby lessening the feasibility of socializing with neighbors and friends. Yet, reports, such as the following appeared nearly every day in the Richmond Times Dispatch, suggesting that numerous slaves broke the ordinances: "No Pass - Joseph Allen, belonging to the estate of the late Joe Abrams, slept in the cage . . . , because he had no pass when captured by the watchmen."

Richard Wade has found significant evidence that in the "back-alley groceries and groggeries", possibly due to convenience alone, white workers and blacks engaged in a traffic of petty theft. White workers might allow slaves to buy liquor, purchase freedom papers or rent a room in exchange for slave-stolen goods. According to Earl Niehaus, the author of Irish in New Orleans, Irish grocers had been arrested for receiving sugar and flour stolen by slaves.

A law was passed on March 4, 1854 to regulate the social establishments which encouraged the integration of the races: "The council shall have exclusive authority within said city to grant or refuse license to the keepers of ordinaires, inns and taverns, houses of public or private entertainment, boarding houses, public eating houses, coffee houses, places of which spirituous liquors shall be sold; and places of public amusement. They shall further have authority to regulate the manner in which such houses or places shall be kept." In addition, a free black could not receive a license to sell "ardent spirits." Alcoholic beverages most probably drew crowds, both black and white, and by blurring the senses, must have diminished the emphasis on racial and ethnic distinctions. The laws were responses to societal behavior which was disfavored by those in power, particularly the interaction between diverse groups . The native Virginians, the officeholders, intended to preserve the distinction between white and black, the distinction over which the Irish must have been causing great confusion.

Of course, all activities which indicate a bond between the two groups are not associated with unrighteousness. In 1847, the First African Baptist Church of Richmond donated forty dollars overseas to assist victims of the Irish famine. Ten years later, the church contributed a small sum to help the city's Irish poor. It is also interesting that in an area where the Baptist religion dominated black culture, trailed by a growing Methodist influence, there was a movement to establish a black Catholic church of the Latin rite. The effort succeeded, and St. Joseph's Church was established after the Civil War. It is reasonable to suggest that the very rudimentary seeds of this movement may have been influenced by neighboring Irish Catholic immigrants during the earlier half of the eighteenth century.

Richmond slaveowners did not want to reveal or emphasize the humanity of blacks which could be portrayed through religious services and theatrical performances. Theatrical performances were viewed as the more dangerous of the two. Theatrical audiences included diverse peoples whereas African-American religious services were typically homogeneous affairs. As a result laws were passed in the 1850's which prevented the participation of blacks in "any show, exhibition or performance." In addition, the city council had the power to prohibit any performance which was deemed "injurious to the morals or good order of the town," such as a performance highlighting the flaws of slavery. The laws were in large part attempts to restrict the spread of foreign ideas concerning liberty to blacks, indicating upper class slaveholders' fear of insurrection. " ' Not only free Negroes,' complained a Richmond newspaper in 1860, 'but low white people can be found who will secret a slave from his master.' " The Richmond Times Dispatch reported on July 6, 1854 that a white man had been charged with an "attempt to run a negro out of State," suggesting further alliance between black and white. Yet, the government could not easily censor the ingrained ideologies of the Irish who shared common circumstances with the blacks. In the 1850's, theaters across the country were playing versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The theatrical world was swelling "with offshoots, parodies, thefts, and rebuttals of every imaginable kind." In particular, Irish parodies, such as Uncle Pat's Cabin by H.J. Conway, were performed. "The Irish American printed a scathing piece . . . that argued the case of 'Father Pat' against that of Uncle Tom, and held up the sufferings of the white peasant to the hypocritical antislavery Stowe . . . ." The Uncle Tom's Cabin plays intensified the racial issues of working-class debate: "while the slave can be whipped to death, the worker can be starved to death."

By the time the Civil War broke out, the circumstantial bonds between blacks and Irish may have proved decisive in undermining Confederate unity. The president of an Alabama railroad company conveyed to the Confederate secretary of war his opinion concerning the immigrants of the early nineteenth century and their level of commitment to Southern ideologies: "These men do not feel identified in any great degree with the South and are not imbued with sentiments and feelings calculated to impress the South strongly in favor of our cause, as to induce them to make any great sacrifice of interest or feeling in its behalf." The president's account proved to be accurate. During the Union army's occupation of Charleston in 1865, federal officers recruited from the local area two regiments, one black, one Irish. A Union soldier noted that the people who gathered to watch the parade of the Union army through Charleston were " 'chiefly negroes and Irish, and their delight at seeing us was unbounded, the Irish being quite as enthusiastic in the expression of joy as the negroes.' " Following the election of 1860, politician John Slidell commented that in the city of New Orleans, " ' seven-eighths at least of the vote for Douglas were cast by the Irish and the Germans, who are at heart abolitionists.' " Men and women who had aspired to escape a way of life dominated by land-lords were not predisposed to endorse the doctrine of slavery. "Deeply rooted beliefs about the connection between labor and liberty and cherished ideas about the connection of both to republicanism took on a special meaning [for the immigrants] in slave society." The common circumstances of working-class life, especially in the case of the Irish, most likely heightened immigrants' sympathy for the plight of the slaves. Furthermore, slavery was viewed by the immigrants as a threat to the liberty of all men especially their own. Slave competition, for example, lowered their wages and decreased the number of available jobs. The immigrant ideology pertaining to liberty is further proof to suggest ripe conditions for the nourishment of a bond between the Irish and blacks.

On the other hand, the same conditions had the power to spark racism. The Irish realized that due to their association with the black race, they were subject to greater discrimination. Incipient racism served as a means of attempting to separate Irish from black. Yet, the evidence, particularly the laws, proves that the well-established association of Irish with black could not be easily erased in the minds of Richmond's people.

While Richmond authorities were clearly concerned about criminality, their notion of what criminality was was interwoven with the intermingling of diverse peoples. This conception of criminality was substantiated by the fact that the prosperity of antebellum Richmond relied on a rigid social structure in which blacks remained subservient. The Irish shook the already teetering edifice. Despite the numerous laws intended to restrict integration between blacks and other groups in antebellum Richmond, evidence points out that interaction did occur between those in the unskilled stratum, blacks and Irish. Living arrangements, the vice of drinking, and a common history of oppression bred an understanding if not an intimate relationship between the Irish and blacks. This bond of understanding led to Irish influence over blacks' religious, political, social, and economic development. The Irish straddled the barriers of white and black and as a result, had a revolutionary influence on the lower class social atmosphere within antebellum Richmond.