New York’s Mixed-Race Riot

New York’s Mixed-Race Riot

The New York Times

Lisa Orr, Professor of English
Utica College, Utica, New York

When draft rioters set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York on the night of July 13, 1863, one man in the crowd called out, “If there is a man among you with a heart within him, come and help these poor children!” Incensed, the crowd turned on him and almost dismembered him. But he had distracted them, enabling the orphans to escape.

The rioters were Irish. So was the man who sacrificed himself. And chances are good that at least some of those orphans were part Irish, too.

In the years before the Civil War, Irish immigrants to Northern cities inhabited the same slums as free blacks, worked alongside them in the worst jobs and often married them. Antebellum New York held no large, specifically black neighborhoods. Many slaves freed in New York’s gradual emancipation settled in the Sixth Ward, along with other low-income people of Irish, German and Jewish descent. Those neighborhoods were unified mainly by the kind of work residents performed: cartmen, corn sellers and prostitutes all plied their wares around the infamous Five Points. With the rapid influx of immigrants during the famine years of the 1840s, the majority of the neighborhood became Irish. But the hardscrabble, interracial lifestyle remained…

…Harmonious or not, most mixed-race marriages in New York were between Irish women and black men and mulatto children were common. The year 1850 saw a new racial category, mulatto, added to the census, to account for their offspring. When the draft came, during a heat wave in the bleak middle of the Civil War, the mob targeted mixed-race households, especially those containing Irish women who had children with African-American men.

Southerners used the threat of amalgamation to undermine Northern support for the war. A United States representative from a border state, arguing that Republicans favored total race equality, described “a ball held at Five Points in the city of New York, where white women and negroes mingled `in sweet confusion in the mazy dance.’” (His opponent, Francis W. Kellogg, Republican of Michigan, pointed out that Five Points was within the strongest Democratic ward in the city.)

Two New York City Democrats invented the term miscegenation during the 1864 election campaign. “The present war … is a war for the negro,” argued a faked Republican pamphlet, designed to discredit Lincoln. “Let it go on until … the great truth shall be declared in our public documents and announced in the messages of our President, that it is desirable the white man should marry the black woman and the white woman the black man.” One subhead was entitled, “The Irish and Negroes First to Comingle.”…

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