African American

African Americans And The Irish – America’s Oldest Love Story Part 1: Marriage

Technology has made the impossible possible and today many African Americans are reconnecting with their genealogical roots in Africa. However, among many African Americans stands another ancestral parent outside the continent of Africa, commonly known as Ireland. It is estimated that nearly 40 to 50% of African Americans living in America possess Irish parentage.  African American celebrities like Eddie Murphy (Irish grandfather), Mariah Carey (Irish mother), Muhammad Ali (Irish great-grandfather), Barack Obama (Irish great-great-grandfather), Alicia Keys (Irish-Italian mother), and Samantha Mumba (Irish mother), to name a few are proud bearers of Irish ancestry. Even the infamous political Che Guevara has Irish ancestry. It is clearly evident that Ireland is a mother to many African Americans, but also Americans and maybe the binding force for us all.

Since Ireland is also a part of many African Americans’ ancestral trees, it would make sense for African Americans to research their green clover history to hear first-hand about how their ancestors came into this country and some of the struggles they had, but also the good and the bad had with African Americans. Let’s begin!

As both ethnicities were victims of oppression, African Americans and Irish have had a long history of cohabitation with each other as their numbers began to grow in the United States. Although this wasn’t always a peaceful union, history does reveal some amazing facts about the relationship between the two ethnicities. For example, Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 2, states:

“…indicators are that the Irish, if anything, get along better with African Americans than with native-born white Americans. Numerous neighborhoods and districts in large cities, such as New York City’s Seneca Village and Five Points District, were well-known-sometimes infamous-for their large numbers of African American and Irish immigrants living side by side…..

In 1849, Quakers conducted an inquiry into the living conditions of African Americans in Philadelphia commented that African Americans frequently lived in the same houses and often the same rooms as Irish Immigrants. Even as late as 1899, one study of African Americans in the same city noted that of black-white married couples on one neighborhood, the majority of immigrant women married to black men were Irish, significantly outnumbering women from any other country married to black men.”

Marriages between Irish women and African American males were recorded as far back as the earliest recordings of slavery in America. Author Martha Hodes covers this subject thoroughly in her classic work titled White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex In The Nineteenth Century South. In the book, Hodes takes note from some earlier records of unions between the Irish and African Americans during slavery:

“In 1681, a white servant named Eleanor Butler, called Irish Nell, and a black slave called Negro Charles married on the lower western shore of Maryland….When Nell and Charles married in 1681, no court case resulted. The story came to be told only in the following century when two enslaved grandchildren of Nell and Charles filed a petition claiming their freedom on the grounds of descent from a free white woman.”

When the descendants of Irish Nell and Negro Charles filed for freedom a whole investigation into the nature of this marriage began and several eyewitnesses surfaced. Hodes continues:

Charles was a slave on the plantation of Major William Boarman. In 1681, when Nell Butler arrived in Maryland as the servant of the third Lord Baltimore, Baltimore boarded at Boarman’s plantation. At the Boarmans, Nell washed, ironed, cooked, spun, labored in the fields, and performed the services of a midwife, after a short while. William Boarman purchased Nell’s services from Lord Baltimore. Nell and Charles were to be married, but not before the servant-woman had a verbal spar with the lord. On the morning of the wedding day, Baltimore, who had been informed of the impending marriage, cautioned Nell against it, telling her by such an act she would make slaves of herself and her descendants. Nell cried and told Lord Baltimore not only that this was her choice but also that she would rather marry Charles than Baltimore himself, and that she would rather go to bed with Charles than Lord Baltimore. Unable to persuade her to change her mind, Baltimore cursed Nell and dismissed her.

The wedding ceremony was performed by a local Catholic priest at the Boarman plantation in 1681. Nell “behaved as a bride,” and several people wished the couple much joy.”

While Irish Nell and Negro Charles may have experienced a joyous union, later generations would come under much criticism and violence in some cases. However, it should be noted that many of these unions were based on mutual consent and also occurred between white males and black women. Author Paul R. Spickard makes this observation in his classic work entitled Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-century America, where he states:

Nonetheless, the frequent appearance of people called mulattoes in records of the time testifies to a good deal of mixing. Romances between Black women and White men of similar status were not always so private. Lorenzo Greene culled court records and found a dozen cases from seventeenth-century New England involving White servants or free men who were named as fathers of illegitimate children by Black slave women. In a society where the line between servant and slave was less precise than that between bond and free, it stands to reason that some White servant men and Black slave women should choose each other as partners. The fact that both were, at least temporarily, not free people but the property of others meant that most such relationships never received a formal legal sanction. In some cases, however, Black women and White men did manage to make formal their attachments. For example, in 1656, Virginian Elizabeth Key managed to sue for her freedom and did wed William Greensted.”

Spikard, in his observations, cited above, not only acknowledged the consensual unions of white men with black women, among whom included Irish men. but noted the case of Elizabeth Key (Kaye) who, after winning her freedom in court married the attorney, a white male, representing her by the name of William Greensted in 1656.  This is the first in our series of America’s Oldest Love Story. Please check back shortly for part two.

 

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