I’ve noticed recently a spate of social media postings on the subject of American “White” or “Irish” slavery,” in reaction apparently to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The point seems variously to be that it’s not only black people who were “slaves” and/or that many white immigrants were treated just as badly as black slaves and/or perhaps that BLM protestors are paying disproportionate attention to just one historically disadvantaged group. So, wondering about the truth regarding White Slavery as compared to Black Slavery in America, I took a deep dive into the subject, and generous soul that I am, now share my findings and observations.
Herewith, 10 points about these two quite distinct phenomena:
1. Yes, many white Europeans, including Irish, came to the New World as “indentured servants.” Other indentured European men, women and children (sometimes whole families) came from England, Scotland, Germany and Switzerland, but “over the intervening centuries the notion has arisen that the Irish, in particular, were shipped to the New World as ‘white slaves.’” As many as half of the immigrants who came to the New World during the colonial period arrived as such indentured servants. These people often traded their labor to pay for passage to the New World. (Sources include encyclopedia.com, wikipedia, and snopes.com.)
2. As aptly described in Slate magazine: “ Indentured servitude was difficult, deadly work, and many indentured servants died before their terms were over.”
1. White indentured servants had certain rights, albeit limited. But Black slaves were property and had no rights. The U.S. Supreme Court said so in Dred Scott v Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), stating “they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” As Donald Harman Akenson put it in If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730: “a chattel slave was treated like livestock, you could kill your slaves while applying ‘moderate correction’ and the homicide law would not apply; the execution of ‘insolent’ slaves was encouraged in these slavocracies to deter insurrections and disobedience, and their owners were paid generous compensation for their ‘loss’; an indentured servant could appeal to a court of law if they were mistreated, a slave had no recourse for justice.”
2. Laws did not prohibit teaching white indentured servants to read or write. But most pre Civil War Southern states made it a crime to teach black slaves to read or write. Indeed “The United States is unique in that it is the only country known to have prohibited the education of slaves.” See this sample law from North Carolina: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/slaveprohibit.html
3. Few, if any, laws expressly prohibited marriage between or among white ethnic groups. But many states’ laws, such as that of Alabama, imposed a criminal penalty for marriage “when one of the parties is a negro and the other a white person,” with the former (in the case of Alabama, at least) including anyone at least 1/8 black. See “Race, Marriage and the Law of Freedom: Alabama and Virginia 1860s-1960 Freedom: Personal Liberty and Private Law,” Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 70, Issue 2, at page 374.
4. During the decades of Jim Crow in the South, buses, restaurants, restrooms and water fountains did not require separate seating or facilities for “Irish” and “non-Irish” or even “Jewish” and “non-Jewish.” They did, however, distinguish between “White” and “Colored.”
Sources of the “Irish Slavery” Meme
So where do current reports of a vast “Irish slavery” history come from? Irish scholar Liam Hogan, who wrote a thorough series “debunking… the ‘Irish slaves’ myth,” has tracked “white nationalist groups and others who have purposefully spread ‘white slavery’ or ‘Irish slavery’ propaganda online since at least 1998.” According to Hogan, “Almost all of the popular ‘Irish slaves’ articles are promoted by websites or Facebook groups based in the U.S. So it’s predominantly a social media phenomenon of white America.” According to him and the Southern Poverty Law Center, such reports have originated from and/or been promoted by such white supremacist sources as Stormfront, the White Aryan Resistance and the National Alliance. Another frequent source is They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America by Holocaust denier Michael Hoffman, who blames the trans-Atlantic slave trade on Jews.
History certainly shows that the Irish were subjected to mistreatment and genocidal acts by their English masters and that Irish-Americans were often treated as second class citizens, as were Jews, Italians, Slavs and other Mediterranean and Eastern European whites. (See, for example, these sources: https://pluralism.org/catholic-and-jewish-immigrants; https://www.jstor.org/stable/27501633?seq=1; the latter interestingly notes the role Irish-Americans played as role models for other European immigrant groups.) These groups often faced discrimination in housing, hiring, education and social advancement. Some were also targeted for violent and terroristic acts by the Ku Klux Klanand other hate groups. All of that disgraced the values of this country and was shameful and immoral. But these ethnic groups were NOT held in chattel slavery, were not subjected to Jim Crow laws, and do not constitute significantly disproportionate numbers of the imprisoned or suffer from vast differences in family wealth.
In short, white or Irish “slavery” was utterly different from actual black slavery, so was post-slavery treatment of the two groups and so are the long-term consequences.
A Personal Note on My Own Irishness
I recently learned, via the auspices of a 23andMe test, that I have much more Irish ancestry than I had realized. That ancestry is apparently traceable not only to the usual Northern Irish counties from which many came to settle in the South (where I’m from) but to a couple of Catholic counties as well. While this Irish connection is certainly interesting to me, it has had no discernable effect on the quality of my life or that of my relatives, since we are all perceived as simply “white.” I am unaware of any educational opportunities lost, jobs denied, loans delayed, property destroyed as a result of this Irish connection. I am not concerned that this Irishness might lead to my death during a traffic stop. I am confident that, notwithstanding this Irishness, I could wave around a bushel of fake 20 dollar bills without having a police officer force his knee into my neck for almost 9 minutes, ignoring my pleas for my late mother, until I died—he would not dare. No one has ever yelled at me to “go back where you came from.” I can go jogging anywhere without fear that I will be accosted by arms wielding men who suspect I am up to no good because of my skin color.
My wife has significant Italian and Cuban ancestry. She assures me that she also has never experienced or even been particularly concerned that having such ancestry would materially increase the risks of, say, taking a long road trip or just a walk around the neighborhood. Nor have we ever felt compelled to have “the talk” with our two children.
Note on the “One Drop Rule”: The “one drop” rule was not actually perfected until after slavery was outlawed. For example, Arkansas’s Act 320, which became law in 1911 (46 years after the end of the Civil War), defined “Negro” as anyone having “any negro blood whatever.” And per Pew, “1930 Census instructions included this: “a person of mixed White and Negro blood was to be returned as Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood.” Per Frontline PBS’s Frontline, this uniquely American definition was recognized by federal courts and upheld by state courts.
That 23andMe test showed I have 1% sub-Saharan African ancestry—enough for Arkansas law and the U.S. Census to define me as “Negro.” But, somehow, I suspect I would still have been allowed to vote and eat inside restaurants, even before the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts became law.
Note on Georgia’s Slave Law: When founded in 1735, Georgia, the last of the original 13 colonies, was the only one to prohibit slavery. For reasons of principle and military strategy, Georgia’s visionary founder James Edward Oglethorpe stoutly resisted pressure from South Carolina plantation masters to permit it in the new colony. But following his return to England in 1742, the pro-slavery forces finally got their wish, reversed Georgia’s slave code and Carolina “planters and their slaves flooded into Georgia.” See The New Georgia Encyclopedia.
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