Battering the battering ram
Hey guys. One of the major themes of the current essay series is how disruptive the influx was black Southerners was to the Northern cities, and I thought it was worth saying a few words about previous mass migrations. Large-scale population movements are bound to be disruptive, even under the best of circumstances, and the black Great Migration was far from the first example in American history of new arrivals drawing the ire and bumping heads with previous residents. I also wanted to point out a historical pattern I think has played out in the previous migrations, and which was very much in play in the 1960s.
In the middle of the 19th century, roughly one-quarter of the entire population of Ireland immigrated to the United States. The rapidity and scale of the transformation wrought on American society cannot be overstated, and the flood of humanity overwhelmed the country’s adolescent institutions. In 1830, there were 17,773 foreign-born residents in New York City (just under 9% of the population). For reasons I haven’t been able to track down, we don’t have the number for 1840, but by 1850 there were 235,733 recently-arrived immigrants in the city, a 1,326% increase which by that time shook out to about half the city’s population. These were the demographic circumstances that set the scene for Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York. As with later mass migrations - the Okie Dust Bowl refugees in California, the Southern blacks moving to Northern cities - crime and disorder followed in the wake of the Irish migrants, and they soon found themselves in conflict with the previous residents of the cities in which they settled.
Part of the problem was that (as with most mass migrations) a majority of the new arrivals were young men. Some arrived unattached, others came with plans to bring their families in tow once they found employment. As anyone who’s ever spent time in a mining camp or a Marine Corps barracks knows, things tend to get rowdy when you put a bunch of fighting age men together with no marriageable women around to domesticate them. The later migrations of Okies and Southern blacks suffered from a similar gender imbalance, which often made them about as welcome as the hordes of Papist scum were with Bill the Butcher.
In all three of these cases - the Irish, the Okies, the blacks - the vast majority of migrants were country folks, country back when that meant something. Most were illiterate, and many had never even seen a major city. They were not accustomed to regimented industrial employment or the complex credit economy developing in the urban centers. They had little experience with urban police or the judicial system, and often resorted to self-help (that is, private vengeance) if they felt they’d been wronged. The famous 1965 Moynihan Report drew explicit comparisons between the difficulties faced by blacks of the Great Migration and those of the 19th century Irish: