Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.
Most of you would think the worst race riot in American history happened at Rosewood or Tulsa. But in fact, more than a thousand Black men, women, and children lost their lives in New York.
For three days, white Irishmen targeted and killed innocent Blacks in an orgy of violence.
Here is what happened.
In 1863, the American Civil War was in full fury. American citizens were drafted to fight in a war of unification that would claim half a million lives.
There were two groups, however, that were exempt from the draft – wealthy whites and Blacks.
Wealthier citizens could pay a fee of $9,000 (todays rates) to hire someone else to fight in their place.
And since Blacks were not given citizenship until 1868, they were not subject to mandatory draft laws.
This pissed off disenfranchised whites who saw “the Blacks” as a threat to their jobs and their women.
Democrat politicians were quick to capitalize on the fears and frustrations of poor, white, Blue collar workers to gain political power.
First, they recruited the thousands of newly naturalized Irish immigrants to their party. Then, they conducted mass voting registration campaigns to get these citizens to the polls.
The politicians hoped that this strategy would tilt the political advantage to the Democrats of New York who sympathized with the racist South more than the progressive North.
Rhetoric Explodes Into Race War
From the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860, the Democratic Party had warned New York’s Irish and German residents to prepare for the emancipation of slaves and the resultant labor competition when southern blacks would supposedly flee north. To these New Yorkers, the Emancipation Proclamation was confirmation of their worst fears. – In The Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863
In January of 1863, then President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all Blacks would be recognized as free men and women within the United States.
The white masses felt that the predictions made by political shit starters was coming to pass – ‘the Blacks’ were coming for white jobs, white women, and white power.
Gangs and mobs formed to ‘do something’ about the problem.
In March of 1863, white dock workers launched a surprise attack on 200 free Black laborers, killing many of them and knocking over the first domino in a chain that would lead to the bloodiest race riot in American history.
Later, the 500 volunteer Firefighters would take the orgy of violence to a new level. When draft numbers were called, the men responded by destroying the polling station and turning their outrage on any Black they could find nearby.
Riots raged across the city for three days. More than 1,000 Black men, women, and children were killed, and property belonging to Blacks and wealthy whites was destroyed.
Rioters went into the streets in search of “all the negro porters, cartmen and laborers …” to attempt to remove all evidence of a Black and interracial social life from the area near the docks. White dockworkers attacked and destroyed brothels, dance halls, boarding houses, and tenements that catered to Black people.
The savagery knew no limits, and the mob even burned the Colored Orphan Asylum down to the ground. The asylum had – up to that point – provided shelter for 233 children.
The Aftermath of the Race Riots
The race riots changed the face of the New York area. Most Black families fled Manhattan forever and moved to Brooklyn to rebuild their lives. Today, only 15% of Manhattan is Black, and more than 60% of Brooklyn is comprised of people of color.
But other than the makeup of the city, nothing of substance was gained from the New York race riots. No legislation. No reparations. No public acknowledgements.
In fact, most people would like to forget what happened in 1863 altogether.
What We Can Learn From The New York Race Riots
History teaches us that those who choose not to learn from the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them.
The rhetoric that led up to the New York race riots should sound dangerously similar to the political rhetoric in the U.S. today. White politicians rile up the racism that lies just beneath the surface of white Blue collar workers using dogwhistles (“Immigrants” are coming to take your jobs!”) to spur them into action.
This is more than campaign rhetoric. White politicians know how to play the game and get the results they want.
In 1863, more than a thousand Blacks were killed by Democrats to prevent any perceived threats to the system of white supremacy. Today American Republicans use the same formula.
As the story of the New York race riots teach us, when White extremists are stirred up by political rhetoric, it is only a matter of time before violence ensues.
And these extremists are even more likely to take action if they feel protected by those in power.
In 2002, Gangs of New York starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis portrayed this sentiment more accurately than writing can.
History repeats itself for those who do not learn from it and take action to correct themselves.
The only political solution to prevent another 1863 is Pan-Africanism. For as long as we trust one white supremacist political party over another white supremacist political party, history is doomed to repeat itself.
Do you think the race riots of New York could happen again? What can we do to protect ourselves and prevent another attack in the future? Leave your comments below.