Roots had been about his family tree on his father’s side; his new novel would be about the branch of his family, traced through his grandmother – the daughter of a black slave woman and her white master.
Haley died before he could complete the story, but at his request, it was finished by David Stevens and was published as “Alex Haley’s Queen.”
That story did not begin in Africa, but in Ireland, for Alex Haley was an Irish-African American – a member of a group of people that both the Irish and African communities have forgotten, but a group that deserves to be remembered.
It was a group descended from the slave ships of Africa and Liverpool, and the coffin ships of Ireland’s Great Hunger.
Haley was as proud of his Irish roots as he was of his African ones.
The late Daniel Cassidy, director of the Irish studies program at New College of California in San Francisco, said that while few in either community recognized their shared past, MacArthur Genius Award winner, Ishmael Reed, often wrote and spoke of his Irish and African roots and people like Muhammed Ali – in Ireland just last week – and writer Alice Walker have also held up high their Irish roots.
Other African-Irish American notables include Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, and Ella Fitzgerald as well as, of course, President Barack Obama.
From the beginning of Irish and African arrival in the New World, the relationship between the two races was furthered by their common social position.
Tired of biased treatment, a group of workers met at John Hughson’s waterside tavern in New York City in the winter of 1740-41 to plan an insurrection on St. Patrick’s Day. The conspirators were a mixture of slaves and low-wage laborers of many nationalities, but the leaders were David Johnson, who swore he would help to burn the town, and kill as many white people as he could (meaning rich people for Johnson was white), John Corry, an Irish dancing-master, who promised the same, and an African-American named Caesar.
Eventually they burned down Fort George, the governor’s mansion, and the imperial armory – all symbols of Royal authority and the instruments of ruling-class power in British New York. The British put down the rising and 13 were burned at the stake, 21 were hanged, and 77 were transported out of the colony as slaves or servants.
The corpses of two of the hanged leaders dangled in an iron gibbet on the waterfront as a lesson to others. As the bodies decayed, observers noted a gruesome transformation.
The corpse of the Irishman turned black and his hair curly while the corpse of Caesar, the African, bleached white. It was accounted by the bigoted WASP society as proof that there was no difference between the blacks and the Irish.
That event is only a small part of a history of two groups that had suffered the same violence of the lash, the gallows and a ship’s dark hold just for being who they were.
Today, not only is their amicable association being misunderstood and eliminated from history, but tales of conflict between them have been credited to race alone in order to hide to hide the broader truth.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, intermarriage was not uncommon and studies of the Five Points, the Bloody Old Sixth Ward and the Central Park Shantytowns in New York reveal a number of African American families living in New York’s largest Irish ghettos before the Civil War.
Despite the prejudiced attitude of society in general, interracial couples were able to live there peacefully amid crime, riots, labor strife and gang wars. After the Great Hunger immigration, Irish and African American families lived together in the slums and shanty towns of all of America’s largest cities.
Both were exiled peoples who were forced from their native lands and had lost their language; yet both held onto their identities through their music, dance and religion.
Omitted from today’s understanding is a rich and forgotten history of mutual tolerance that stretches from the ancient fortresses of Ireland’s Ulster kings, who traded with merchant princes of Africa two centuries before Christ, to Pete Williams’ dance hall in The Five Points neighborhood of New York, where author Charles Dickens was startled by the sight of ‘Paddy’ and black revelers dancing together.
The black dancers swapped steps and rhythms with the Irish, blending into an art form which found expression on the American stage.
In an article in the “International Tap Newsletter,” Jane Goldberg wrote that tap dancing came out of the lower classes, developed in competitive “battles” on street corners by Irish immigrants and African American slaves.
Another writer in the newsletter suggested that only in the great American melting pot could Irish jigs combine with African shuffles and sand dances to form an entirely new and exciting art form.
According to writer and critic Clive Barnes, it was the Irish clog dancers who started tap dancing, but these Irish forms were clearly grafted onto existing dances that came directly from Africa.
An early example of this story was the solo presentations of Johnny Durang, an Irish dance master in Philadelphia, who first gave Irish step dancing a theatrical form through his on-stage performance of the hornpipe. He was also apparently the first Irish person to blacken his face for performances. As blackface led to Minstrel Shows, the music changed from Irish to jazz and tap dancing to new rhythms evolved as well.
Irish and African laborers also created a history that can be found in New York’s Five Points, where the children of Irish immigrants cheered when the Black Laborer’s Union and the Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa paraded up Baxter Street together in 1871 to fight for the eight-hour workday.
Another great connection was made with the contributions to the anti-slavery debate made by the flamboyant Irish nationalist leader, Daniel O’Connell.
In 1845, black leader Frederick Douglass traveled to Ireland and met and befriended the Irish nationalist leader and was pleased to be called the “Black O’Connell.”
When Douglass went to Ireland, he saw countless dead and millions of starving people eating grass. He wrote a friend of how the people of Ireland lived in the same degradation as American slaves.
He said, “I see so much here to remind me of my former condition I should be ashamed to lift my voice against American slavery but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over.”
In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, he wrote: “I have undergone a transformation. I live a new life. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as a slave, or offer me an insult.”
Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Liberator, had sympathy for the cause of liberty everywhere, and was especially known for his public denunciations of slavery in America.
When southerners sent him money for his work in Ireland, he sent it back, calling it a bloodstained offering, saying he would never purchase the freedom of Ireland with the price of slaves.
Professor Patricia Ferreira, of Norwich University, concludes that although from a young age Douglass possessed the inclination to be a leader, Ireland was the site where this trait blossomed.
Ireland was also the site, according to Professor Bill Rolston, where Douglass honed both his oratorical and political skills. He returned to the U.S. transformed by his Irish experience and went on to become one of the greatest orators of the 19th-century.
The “lost chord” at the heart of the Irish-African experience in America lies hidden within these and many more forgotten moments.
Today, much of the prejudice against Irish Americans and African Americans has been overcome, but occasionally reminders appear.
In July 1998, as Roman Catholic churches were torched all across Northern Ireland, we were reminded of the black churches burned in the American South; the specter of the three Quinn children, incinerated in their beds by a gasoline bomb thrown into their County Antrim home by loyalist extremists, recalls the fate of James Tate, dragged to death behind a pickup driven by Alabama white supremacists, simply because he was black.
We have long prayed for a time when the night skies of Belfast and Birmingham will no longer burn and children will no longer perish in churches of fire.
Hopefully, that time has finally arrived.
Mike McCormack is National Historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.