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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Immigration
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Racial Tensions

During much of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of Irish and Blacks were present, they were pushed into competition. There are striking parallels in the culture and history of the two groups. They began their life in America with low social and economic status. Over time, they advanced in common fields such as sports, entertainment, religion, writing and publishing, and politics. They even had similar social pathologies—alcoholism, violence and broken homes. Rather than being united by their common hard life, they were divided by the need to compete. For political benefit, this pattern was reinforced as Blacks were drawn to the Republican Party while the Irish strength in numbers was wooed by the Democratic Party.

Both the Irish and Blacks had reason to feel they were treated unfairly in the workforce, and often at one another's expense. In the antebellum South, for instance, where slaveholders viewed slaves as valuable property, Blacks were prohibited from participating in hazardous, life-threatening work. Thus, many of the most dangerous jobs were left to the Irish who did not have such protection (or limitation). Thousands of Irish lives were lost in the building of the nation's canal and railroad systems.

The Conscription Act of 1863 exacerbated tense relationships. This act made all white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five years eligible for the draft by the Union Army. Free black men were permitted to "volunteer" to fight in the Civil War through the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, Blacks were not drafted or otherwise forced to fight. In addition, white men with money could illegally bribe doctors for medical exemptions, legally hire a substitute, or pay for a commutation of a draft. Lower-class workers could not afford to pay for deferments. The inequities in draft eligibility between blacks, monied whites, and lower-class whites (many of whom were Irish), inevitably increased racial tensions.

Several cities suffered draft riots in which enrollment officers and free blacks were targeted for violence. The largest such incident began on June 11, 1863, in New York City when more than 100 people were murdered by an angry mob. After burning down a draft office and attacking police officers and well-dressed whites, this mob of lower-class whites (including many Irish) focused its energy on killing black bystanders. The Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People . . . documents some of the acts perpetrated by the mob in the section, Incidents of the Riot.



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