For eight days in July 1834, immigrants' fear of the mere possibility of a future flood of newly freed slaves from the South competing with them for jobs in New York City boiled over into a full-scale riot involving thousands.
Watch our video about this little remembered event in American history.
The new Juneteenth holiday coming up on June 19 is a time not only to celebrate the federal ending of slavery after the Civil War but also to think about the forces that had long opposed emancipation. The 1834 Labor Riot of New York was a prime example of the fact that the freeing of American slaves was resisted not only in the South but also in the North, most vigorously by new immigrants from Europe.
I recount the role of mass immigration in greatly delaying the economic and civil advancement of Black Americans throughout the 19th century in my book, BACK OF THE HIRING LINE: A 200-year history of immigration surges, employer bias, and depression of Black wealth.
I contend that a bigger culprit than the immigrants were elected officials who ran mass immigration policies without any thought to whether they were creating powder kegs of labor desperation and fear that could fuel resentment and violence between races.
Hostile immigrant mobs assailed Black workers in many Northern cities before the Civil War.
-- historian Iver Bernstein in his book, The New York City Draft Riots:
Keep in mind that the immigrants' biggest fear wasn't about competition with Free Blacks already in the North but about what the competition might look like if slaves were freed in the South and moved north to compete in extremely loose labor markets. So, most immigrants in the northern cities joined political organizations that opposed the abolition of slavery in the South.
The July 1834 riots in New York City are highly illustrative of the antagonism toward emancipation. The Times of London reported immediately after the conflagration:
The friends of Negro emancipation have, it appears, been holding meetings in New York and other cities of the Union to promote that object. These meetings excited the alarm of the ignorant Whites, whose hatred being inflamed, led to the perpetration of acts of riot and of spoliation which deeply disgrace the American name . . . Mobs, composed of the very dregs of the Whites, attacked the churches, the dwelling-houses, and the stores of the prominent abolitionists which they gutted and robbed; they also attacked the dwellings and the stores of the leading colored people, destroying their furniture and stealing their goods. . .
The civil force unable to check the career of the rioters, the Mayor of the city called out the military; and the united power succeeded on the night of the 11th in putting an end to the most flagrant and most disgraceful outrages that ever occurred in the United States.
As "disgraceful" as were the actions of the rioting immigrant workers, their precarious existence in the city must be acknowledged to understand their criminal passions. Packed in overcrowded, unsafe and unhealthy tenements, the immigrant workers could not imagine how they could survive if they lost any ground in wages, let alone if they lost their jobs.
The immigrants correctly assumed that, if the abolitionists were successful and slavery ended in the South, large numbers of freed slaves would head North. The immigrants did not have to be economists to know that the additional increase in the labor supply would depress wages and create even more labor conflict. Their egregious error of logic and ethics, however, was to assume that they as recent arrivals had the higher claim for jobs over African Americans, most of whom had generations of roots in this country. It was not Black workers who were undercutting immigrant workers but the other way around. Thus, African Americans not only were suffering discrimination in the hiring lines and exclusion from membership in immigrant-dominated unions, but they were also being physically attacked by the immigrant workers whose growing numbers made that discrimination possible.
The labor tensions could have been reduced if the government had curtailed the continuous arrival of ships full of new foreign workers whose volume was further undercutting employment opportunities for earlier immigrants and inflaming their passions.
Instead, the government allowed the volume of new and unneeded foreign workers to rapidly increase and even encouraged it.
- 1840 saw a new record high of 84,000
- It climbed further to 105,000 in 1842
- Down to 52,000 the next year
- More than double to 114,000 in 1845
- Half again higher to 154,000 in 1846
- And another half increase to 235,000 in 1847
- And all the way to 370,000 in 1850.
More immigrants arrived in the three years of 1848 through 1850 than arrived the entire decades of the 1820s and 1830s combined.
The ex-slave and great abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass bemoaned what he witnessed:
It is evident, painfully evident to every reflecting mind that the means of living, for colored men, are becoming more and more precarious and limited. Employments and callings, formerly monopolized by us, are so no longer.
Rising immigration from the 1820s to the Civil War depressed wages for free Black Americans and immigrants alike. Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert's macroeconomic history shows that between 1816 and 1856, the American Northeast was transformed from the "Jeffersonian ideal" to a society more typical of under-developed countries with marked income inequality and very low wages for laborers.
Organizing themselves into trade unions was one way the immigrants were able to tighten the labor market for those fortunate enough to be allowed into the unions. Immigrant laborers were able to set the terms of hiring at many urban workplaces. Not only did they bar Black workers from their unions, but they usually refused to work alongside them if employers hired African Americans. Because of that refusal on the part of the more numerous immigrant workers, many firms decided not to hire Black workers at all, or to fire the ones already on the site.
By the 1850s, for example, free Black workers had been driven out of most jobs on the New York City waterfront by the immigrants who had gained control over the trades. Denied work through organized labor channels, Black workers increasingly resorted to securing employment by serving as strikebreakers -- an unsavory role they had to endure for another century, and one that engendered further hatred from the immigrant workers.
The immigrant labor riots of 1834 and all the other anti-emancipation riots across the North would be largely forgotten by 21st century Americans in part because of the exceptionally more violent and vicious immigrant labor riots of 1863.
But that's another story and another part of the book.
-- ROY BECK is Founder & President of NumbersUSA
Updated: Thu, Sep 22nd 2022 @ 5:25pm EDT