Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Race and Class in 19th Century Philadelphia

Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Memorial Irish railroad workers 1832

“ one gave a damn for the poor Irish.” p.178

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation…,” Karl Marx

Noel Ignatiev

Noel Ignatiev How the Irish Became White was my LeftBook group’s reading for the last two sessions. It is a provocative history of the Irish in Philadelphia 1800 through Reconstruction, and a New Left classic (although published in 1995). Some might complain Ignatiev unduly demonizes the poor Irish immigrants for defending slavery and adopting American race prejudice. But it is largely the ugly story of white supremacy in American history, and not particular to the Irish. My favorite history teacher at Temple University Center City, Herb Ershkowitz, called the US a slave republic until the Civil War. Thereafter it might be called a white republic. Congress voted in 1790 that only white persons could be naturalized as citizens. It took the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments in 1865 to establish the citizenship of black people, and presumably other non-white persons. The Irish fled British colonialism and the potato famine in the Old World, only to encounter new social and racial conflicts in the New World. Like many subsequent immigrant groups to the US, the Irish were poor and scorned by native born Americans, but gradually climbed the class ladder and became natives themselves. Of course, this option was not available to African Americans.

Noel Ignatiev (aka Noel Ignatin) teaches history at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He has a lengthy resume on the Left. He joined the Communist Party as a teenager in West Philadelphia in 1958, and soon left with a breakaway faction called the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (POC, 1958-1966). His memoir of the POC is online. Ignatiev and POC comrade Ted Allen introduced the concept of “white-skin privilege” to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in their 1967 pamphlet White Blindspot. They argued “The US ruling class has made a deal with the mis-leaders of American Labor, and through them with the masses of white workers. The terms are these: you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with privileges befitting your white skin.” This concept was widely adopted in the New Left.

In 1969 Ignatiev and others founded Sojourner Truth Organization (1969-1986) in Chicago. They held two principle positions: (1) White workers must repudiate their white skin privileges and support African American and Latino struggles to unite the working class; and (2) workers must form independent workers’ organizations outside the unions to develop proletarian consciousness and autonomy. The second idea was inspired by syndicalist ideas from the IWW, and the works of Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, who advocated workers councils as the foundation of real socialism. Our group Philadelphia Solidarity held similar views. We met Ignatiev in the 1970s when he visited family in Philadelphia. When he got laid off from the steel industry in the 1980s, Ignatiev enrolled in graduate school, and wrote his thesis on the Irish in his hometown Philadelphia, and began his academic vocation. How the Irish Became White is informed by his perspective on race and class derived from long years in industry and on the Left. He is not an ivory tower Marxist.


Ignatiev details the complicated interplay between race and class, ethnicity and religion, native and immigrant. The early Irish immigrants were mostly so-called Scotch-Irish, ie Protestants from Northern Ireland. Eight of the 56 original signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish Americans. In the 19th century the Irish came in large numbers, and were poorer and Catholic from Ireland proper. According to censuses, a third of all immigration to the US between 1820 and 1860 were Irish. Ignatiev puts the number between 800,000 to one million. These Irish were escaping British oppression, and later the potato famine in the 1840s. 

In the 18th century Irish Catholics were ruled by the British Penal Laws. Catholics could not vote or hold public office; they could only own or rent small plots of land; they were barred from most professions; Protestants who married Catholics lost their civil rights. In mid century Catholics held only 7% of Irish land. They were essentially an oppressed people in their own country. A movement for Home Rule, or Repeal, led by Lord Mayor of Dublin Daniel O’Connell campaigned for an independent Irish Parliament and civil rights in the 1830s and 1840s. The Repeal movement in Ireland was also abolitionist, and implored their Irish cousins in America to oppose slavery. William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionist movement in America had great hopes that poor Irish immigrants would find common cause with enslaved African Americans. Frederick Douglass even visited Ireland in the 1840s to promote abolition, although he was careful not to criticize England.

Unfortunately, the Irish in America did not heed Daniel O’Connell and the Irish clergy’s call to oppose slavery. Ignatiev argues new Irish immigrants were not initially considered “white” in America’s racial and class hierarchy. They had to compete against slaves and free Blacks to secure employment. They arrived in the US largely without skills and took jobs as servants, laborers, and factory hands. Ignatiev describes how Irish labor was hired to dig canals and build roads because they would work for less than free Blacks or slaves, who were too valuable to lose to injury or disease. Irish immigrants and free Blacks were packed into the same neighborhoods in Philadelphia. There was both fellowship and conflict.

Nativists opposed Irish and Catholic immigration. In Philadelphia, Protestants rioted against the growing Irish population regularly during 1830-1850s. The disputes were about labor conditions in the mills, religion in the public schools, and the Irish support of slavery. The Irish embraced the Democratic Party and the nascent labor movement in self-defense. Early labor unions began in Philadelphia in the 1820s and were largely English and “white”. The Irish gradually became central actors in the unions and the Democratic Party in the city. In Philadelphia this included the control of the police and fire departments, and local politicians. By the end of the 19th century, half the presidents of AFL unions nationwide were Irish or their descendants.

The Irish also displaced free Black labor. This is the thesis of Ignatiev’s book. He argues Irish immigrants used their white skin privilege and the race prejudice of white unions to claim jobs in manufacture and domestic work that had formerly employed free blacks. He feels the New Labor Historians of the 1960s, much like the Old Left, romanticized the labor movement of the 19th century which was an exclusive club for white workers only. 

Of course, this is the central dilemma of American history for the left and labor. Why couldn’t white workers ally with their working class black brothers and sisters to oppose chattel and wage slavery? Why did white workers in the South go to war and 100,000s die to defend the Southern planters and aristocrats? In this regard, I don’t see how the Irish were any better or worse than other white workers. Many Irish died for the Union as well as the Confederacy. Racial ideology was used successfully to divide the working class, and the divide continues to this day.

Ignatiev states abolitionists did not address the cause of free labor, which was also exploited. I know abolitionist Lucretia Mott preached for the eight hour day in the 1850s, and other advanced thinkers may have also. The abolitionists made a big impact despite their small numbers, but they missed the opportunity to connect the emancipation of free labor- black, white, other- and enslaved labor.

How the Irish Became White was reprinted in 2008, so Ignatiev is still being read. The lineage of white supremacy is receiving renewed attention with the ascendancy of Trump. Noel Ignatiev’s book is sadly contemporary.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Judith Giesberg, “Civil War, Civil Rights: African American Women in Civil War-Era Philadelphia”

Judith Giesberg, ed. Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Transcribed and annotated by the Memorable Days Project editorial team: Theresa Altieri, Rebecca Capobianco, Thomas Foley, Ruby Johnson, and Jessica Maiberger.

Laundress in Philadephia

This was another wonderful program July 19, 2017 at The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin and fifty of his closest friends. The speaker Judith Giesberg is Professor of History at nearby Villanova University,  Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era, a prolific author,  founder of the Emilie Davis Diaries Project (aka Memorable Days Project) and the Information Wanted Ad Project. In 2012 Giesberg and her graduate students started transcribing three diaries of Emilie Davis (1839-89), a young free black woman in Philadelphia, and posted them on their Memorable Days website. The diaries had been recently acquired by Pennsylvania Historical Society. The complete work was published in 2014 entitled Emilie Davis’s War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865, edited by Judith Giesberg and transcribed and annotated by the Memorable Days Project. The diary describes everyday life for African American women in the city during the Civil War. Giesberg first talked about Emilie’s life and Civil War Philadelphia, and then her new Information Wanted Project about African American’s effort to locate lost love-ones after Emancipation.

Judith Giesberg, Professor of History Villanova University

Judith Giesberg’s talk was part of a three-week National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer seminar for K-12 school teachers. My sister teaches third grade in Northampton, MA and has taken several NEH summer classes at Smith College in recent years. I hope these programs survive Trump’s budget cuts. We need an educated and critical electorate. The summer seminar Director is Lori Ginzberg, Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State. She introduced her students and the speaker, and promoted The Library Company’s unique programs and collections. Philadelphia has many many historical institutions which are under appreciated.

Philadelphia was a tough town for black people free or slave during the Civil War. According to the 1860 census, there were 22,000 “free colored men and women” in Philadelphia County. There was general support for slavery despite the Quaker and abolitionist heritage in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia voted heavily Democratic in the 1860 election. The city was a Southern neighbor and economically dependent on slave cotton, sugar and agriculture. Frederick Douglass said there was not a city “in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia.” 

Nonetheless African Americans built a strong community. Emilie Davis was a student at the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheney University. She attended Seventh Street Presbyterian Church, aka First (Colored) Presbyterian Church near 7th and South Street. She attended lectures by Frederick Douglass and Ellen Watkins Harper sponsored by The Social, Civil, and Statistical Association of the Colored People of Pennsylvania. She raised money for the Ladies Union Association to provide supplies for sick and wounded United States Colored Troops (USCT) at local hospitals. Emilie Davis’s complete diary is posted at the Memorable Days website.

Black women in Philadelphia also succeeded in integrating the trolley cars so they could visit wounded soldiers in hospital. They visited the USCT at Camp William Penn in the present-day La Mott neighborhood of Cheltenham on the northern edge of the city. Black women were leaders in the civil rights struggle of the day.

Professor Giesberg and her students have launched another project to transcribe advertisements from nineteenth century African American newspapers seeking information about lost family members after Emancipation. They have posted thousands of ads on their website Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery. The project seeks volunteers to help transcribe ads- just sign up. One major source for ads was the Christian Recorder published by Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. The ads give a human picture of the devastation wrought on black families over 200 years of enslavement. A few African Americans have succeeded in tracing their ancestors using the database. This should improve as the archive grows. The project is supported by Villinova University, AME Bethel Church, and the Philadelphia Abolition Society (another historic institution still active in the city).

Information wanted

Emilie Davis concludes her diary “all is well that ends well” on December 31,1865. It is a small uplift for our dark times today.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Slave Business in Philadelphia

Phillip Seitz, Slavery in Philadelphia: A History of Resistance, Denial and Wealth (Create Space: Philadelphia, 2014).

"Your cotton smells of blood." William Lloyd Garrison in The Liberator, 1852

List of Negroes at & belonging to Whitehall, c. 1803

Friday night March 31 my neighbor, wife and I attended Phillip Seitz's talk about his recent book Slavery in Philadelphia: A History of Resistance, Denial and Wealth at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in Philadelphia. This is the story of the privileged Chew family of Cliveden House, the National Trust Historic Site at 6401 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, and their slaves. The grounds were the site for the bloody Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War in 1777. Seitz was the Curator of History at Cliveden House from 2000-2011, and still lives in Mt. Airy. His book is a vignette of Philadelphia's deep connection to slavery, and in a larger sense, the role of slavery in financing the North and emerging capitalism. This is not the history we learned in school. Nor is it the romantic history generally told at colonial monuments and museums. But it should be.

Phillip Seitz

The family story begins with John Chew (1587-1668) arriving at Jamestown VA in 1623 attended by two indentured servants. John was a successful merchant seeking fortune in the New World. He became a trader, planter, and legislator in the Virginia colony. On his death, he bequeathed four slaves to his second wife Rachaell. It should be noted by this date chattel slavery (ie slaves for life) had been firmly established in the colony for Africans. Half the immigration from Europe before Independence were indentured servants, but they earned their freedom in five years typically.

There are many Samuels and Benjamins in this chronology. It is confusing.

John's third son Samuel Chew (1630-1677) settled in Maryland and served in the Assembly and the Provincial Court. In a propitious development, he met the Quaker founder George Fox in 1672 and joined the Society of Friends, and became associated with the William Penn family, future owner of Pennsylvania and the "Three Lower Counties" (DE). Samuel's will left a 600 acre plantation to his wife and first born son, as well as slaves and indentured servants. Samuel's eldest son owned 160 slaves. Samuel's sixth son Benjamin Chew (1671-1699) more modestly owned ten slaves and contracts for three indentured servants. 

Benjamin's (1671-1699) first son Samuel Chew (1693-1743) became a hard working doctor and secured the financial fortunes for future Chew generations in Philadelphia. Samuel became the legal representative to the Penn family, moved to Philadelphia in 1734, and received a grant of 3000 acres in Delaware from Penns' private reserve. He later moved to Delaware (then known as the Lower Counties) and managed his three plantations. He was the largest slaveholder in Delaware. He was still a Quaker.

Samuel's (1693-1743) first son Benjamin Chew (1722-1810) obtained a first class education at Middle Temple in London, and had a long legal career including Chief Justice of Pennsylvania in 1774. He built his elegant summer retreat Cliveden House in then suburban Germantown between 1763 and 1767. He was wealthy. He was legal counsel to the Penn family, a money lender, and landowner of nine plantations in Delaware and Maryland, and large slaveholder. Like the Penns, he left the Society of the Friends in the 1760s for the Anglican Church (Church of England). Because of his association with the British rulers, he was detained by the Continental Congress during the British occupation of Philadelphia. The Chew family were persona non grata for 20 years after the Revolutionary War, but their wealth remained intact. Benjamin's only son Benjamin Chew Jr. (1758-1844) managed the family estates in Maryland and Delaware and speculated in land with indifferent results. One successful investment was Philadelphia's earliest railroad in the 1830s connecting suburban Germantown to downtown Philadelphia. Benjamin Jr. and his son also named Benjamin (1793-1864) dissipated their fortune by the 1850s.

It was up to grandson Samuel Chew (1832-1887) to restore the family fortune and Cliveden House. He married the daughter of David S. Brown, a wealthy textile magnate in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Samuel became a manager in Brown's corporation, and later the executor of Brown's estate in 1877. This became the basis for the Chew family wealth up to the present day.

Cliveden House 1878

Seitz could recount this complicated history because the Chew family saved extensive written records from the earliest days. In 2006 the Historical Society of Pennsylvania received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (now threatened by Trump budget cuts) to catalog the voluminous Chew Family Papers, which filled 885 boxes. Seitz began mining this material, and discovered accounts of slaves who worked the Chew plantations and estate in the 18th and 19th century. This is the part of American history that has generally been omitted from history books. Just recently Washington's slaves in Philadelphia and Mt. Vernon, and Jefferson's slaves at Montecello have been acknowledged and included in the historical memorials. Chattel slavery and wage slavery built this country. These are the true founding fathers and mothers, rather than the wealthy landowners who met at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia in 1774. Seitz tells some of their stories.

Slaves were not passive victims. Seitz devotes one chapter to Chief Justice Benjamin Chew's (1722-1810) Whitehall Plantation, the largest in Delaware with 1000 acres and 60 slaves. He first grew tobacco, and later diversified into wheat, fodder and livestock. Seitz reprints correspondence between Benjamin Chew in Philadelphia and his overseers during the 1790s. The overseers were having trouble with recalcitrant slaves and seeking assistance from Chew. The slaves were so unruly that Benjamin Chew finally decided to sell Whitehall in 1803. He could not find a buyer willing to purchase the land with its troublesome enslaved Black people. Delaware law prohibited selling slaves out of state, and Chew could not find a buyer for his slaves in state. He finally liberated his slaves at Whitehall and sold the plantation at a loss to a neighboring farmer.

In Pennsylvania the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery passed in 1780. It was a conservative bill. It freed a child of a slave woman at age 28, which meant slavery lingered on in Pennsylvania for decades. It also stated any slave brought into Pennsylvania and retained for more than 6 months would be freed. This complicated life for slaveholders in Philadephia like George Washington and Benjamin Chew.

Charity Castle 
Seitz tells the story of the enslaved woman Charity Castle at Cliveden House in 1814. Charity accompanied her mistress Harriet Chew, who was escaping an abusive marriage in Maryland, back to her family home at Cliveden. As the six month deadline approached, Harriet's husband made efforts to retrieve Charity from Philadelphia before she could legally claim her freedom. Charity did not want to return to slavery in Maryland. She had also been abused- probably raped- by Harriet's husband. Charity then fell on the woodpile behind Cliveden, and was badly injured and could not travel. A contentious legal battle ensued between Benjamin Chew Jr., Harriet's husband, and Philadelphia lawyer William Lewis representing Charity Castle's free black husband. William Lewis argued "accident made her a slave, accident made her free, and it seems right that she should avail herself of it." Phillip Seitz does not know how the case resolved. Sometimes the abolitionists won.

During the 19th century the Chew family gradually sold or lost their plantations and slave holdings in Delaware and Maryland. With Samuel Chew (1832-1887) they became manufacturers and capitalists in David Brown's Washington Manufacturing Company. The Philadelphia Chews no longer owned slaves; instead they owned mills that processed slave cotton with waged labor. Actually, much of Phildelphia's economy depended on the products of slavery- tobacco, wheat and cotton. In the run-up to the Civil War, the Philadelphia ruling class and many white workers defended slavery. It brought wealth and jobs to the city, even though slavery was manifestly inhuman and unstable. Once secession and the Civil War commenced, the North had to win the war to save their industries, save the republic, and subsequently emancipate the slaves.

Cliveden today

The legacy of slavery in America is exemplified by the Chew story at Cliveden House. Much of the industrial revolution and Northern wealth was financed by slave labor. How much is hotly debated by historians. The large present day wealth gap between white families and black families in the US derives from 250 years of chattel slavery and 100 years of de jure discrimination. The divisions of race and class are still with us, and still dominate US politics today. Phillip Sietz's local history of the Cliveden House in Mt. Airy is sadly contemporary.