The Long and Uneven Fight for Equality: Providence, R.I. 1841

Thomas G. Bradford Map of Rhode Island 1838

Rhode Islanders have long prided ourselves on our history of tolerance, going back to the arrival of Roger Williams in 1636. However, in the years after Williams, his generation’s descendants created a society that was answerable to only a few well-off landowners. and when the homogenous yankee society found itself threatened by an influx of Irish Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century, it restricted the rights of those new neighbors through political, economic and social means. In response a leadership rose up in the Irish community to defend and expand their rights.

One of their first tests of strength proved a failure, but it was the beginning of a long struggle that wouldn’t fully succeed for eight more decades.

Providence’s Irish Catholic community of 1841 was a small one, numbering just over three thousand people, out of a population of twenty-three thousand city residents. As their numbers rose, a number of issues developed that needed resolution. Obtaining sacred land in which to bury their dead was an early challenge. And so, on a cold November night in 1841, a group of men representing their neighbors made a presentation to the city council of Providence.

The timing could not have been worse. The Old Guard of Yandeedom was feeling threatened by an onslaught of the immigrants. In cities like Boston and New York, newly naturalized citizens were finding their way in the circles of power. Rhode Island had an ancient document from the reign of Charles II that was used to keep power in the hands of the few. The outsiders would have to work as one to succeed.

However, the newly arrived folks were themselves divided. On this night, however, the Irish community of Providence united to fight for their community and its dignity.

In a state where only people of substance held the right to vote, and where the rural communities held as much power as the city of Providence, a revolution was brewing to change all that. The extralegal People’s Convention, held only one month earlier in October, had essentially declared war on the status quo. And representing that status quo were the men of the city council of Providence, who sat in judgement of their modest fellow citizens. Many of these same petitioners would be casting their vote for the People’s Constitution.
And by the Spring, what history has come to know as Dorr’s Rebellion threatened civil war in Rhode Island.
Thomas W. Dorr, Champion of Liberty

The Irish community of Providence was itself made up of two factions. The immigrants from Ulster, and in particular Counties Tyrone and Monaghan, were pitted against those from the south and west of Ireland. While the exact issues are unclear, it seems the abrasive personality of the Reverend John Corry, an Ulster man and the head of the parish, was central to the dissension. According to Henry J. Duff, a community leader, “one-half of his congregation disliked him and he returned their indifference with a cordial hatred.”1

Yet for at least one brief moment, the two sides came together to petition the city council of the City of Providence.
And so, on the of evening November 26, 1841, 109 men, mostly Irish and all Catholic, presented themselves to the Providence City Council in order to petition on behalf of their community for a burial ground for their “friends.”2
The text, written by the Rev. Dennis Ryan, said in part, “ We, your petitioners, on behalf of the Roman Catholics of the City of Providence, respectfully approach your honourable body with an appeal to your generosity.”

Making note of the fact that their community composed “a large proportion” of the citizens of the city (in fact, more than ten percent), they described themselves as “being an industrious, labourious class of your fellow citizens & generally the most indigent; few of us being in affluent circumstances.”

In fact, calling themselves indigent was no exaggeration. The men, ranging in age from late teens to late fifties, were mostly unskilled laborers, working at the most menial positions. Among them, there were only a handful who were skilled workers. Nearly all lived in crowded and unhealthy buildings. No fewer than fourteen of the petition signers lived within a block of each other in over-crowded tenements on North Main Street.
In 1844, most Irish lived in the North End, near Allen’s Print Works and
other operations. The Calendering company was located just south of the
cove and at the bottom of what would soon be a new Irish enclave: Federal Hill.

They went on to “earnestly pray your honourable body to grant a donation to said Catholics of Providence a lot of land, at the North End of said city.”

Six weeks and three days later, the council returned their judgement. There would be no land for available for Catholics to bury their dead on city land. Where other groups were granted their place in the city’s cemetery, Irish residents as a group were excluded.
Although their petition failed, these men, no doubt with the support and prodding of some very strong women, organized themselves in a way that would be repeated over and over again as they fought for political and economic rights. Four and a half years later, in May 1846, again under the leadership of Henry J. Duff, they petitioned the United States House of Representatives for their right as naturalized citizens of the United States to participate equally in the political life of Rhode Island. Defeated again, it would be eight decades before Rhode Island’s immigrants, by then including numerous Italian and Eastern European residents, would have their proper place at the table of American democracy.
In 1841, Irish immigrants made up
nearly 10% of Providence’s population
of 23,000.

Who were these men? Where did they live and what was their place in Providence society? And just as importantly, how did they come together?

City directories and the federal census of 1850 offer insight into these men. Their occupations were indeed humble and their incomes modest. Sixty-three of them appear to be simply common laborers, earning the lowest income and doing the most dangerous work.
The others included a blacksmith, Owen Carroll; two bleachers, John Laughlin and Edward Barr; three block-printers, Patrick O’Connell, Henry J. Duff and William McCanna; three boiler-makers, James Quinn, William Hughes and Patrick Flyn; and three dyers, Thomas Demsey, Bernard Heagney and Edward McCrokren. Finally, there was a block cutter, William Kelly. O’Connell, Duff and Kelly were very active leaders of the Irish community in Providence.
Henry’s signature was second to that of Dennis Ryan,
the priest who wrote the text.

The most socially elevated occupations included James W. Manson, a 42-year-old grocer,  John Cosgrove, a clerk, James McCarthy, a designer and Thomas Oldham, an engraver. Of those, Manson was the one most likely to have been able to accumulate some wealth. Being a grocer afforded one a position of respect and some wealth within the community. Grocers offered a place to gather socially, as well as to catch up on the news from Ireland.

One of the few non-Irish petition signers, Manson was naturalized
in September 1846, no doubt influenced by Henry J. Duff.
The idea for the petition must have grown out of discussions at work, at home, at Manson’s grocery and in church.
At least nine of the men were employed by the  Providence Dyeing, Bleaching & Calendering Company and may have discussed it on the shop floor there. The calendaring company, as it was referred to, was located near the foot of Federal Hill on Sabin Street, and was one of the two biggest employers of Irish immigrants in the city.

The other large-scale employer of the Irish in 1841 was Allen’s Print Works in the North End of the city.

Already significant by 1841, Allen’s Print Works was a massive
operation by the time this map was published in 1875.
Note: McKenna Street just to the north of the print works.

Philip Allen, the owner and future governor of Rhode Island, was a generous defender of his Irish employees. He promoted Irishmen to management positions, treated his workers fairly and made generous donations to their churches. Those gifts included a Spanish bell for the cathedral and another bell for St. Patrick’s Church on Smith Hill. When a large gathering of Irishmen held Providence’s first St. Patrick’s Day banquet in 1839, Philip Allen and his son, also Philip, were guests of honor.

As governor of Rhode Island in the early 1850’s, Allen tried, unsuccessfully, to extend universal voting rights to all citizens, something that had been at the heart of Thomas W. Dorr’s revolution just ten years earlier. Curiously, in the small world that Rhode Island was and still is today, Philip Allen was the uncle of Thomas Wilson Dorr.

The largest number of the petition signers, not surprisingly, lived in the city’s North End. Before, and perhaps even after the development of Federal Hill, the North End was the largest Irish neighborhood for most of the nineteenth century, beginning in the 1820’s.
Federal Hill was  a new neighborhood, developed around various industrial plants at the bottom of the hill. What we think of today as Federal Hill was just in the beginning phases of development in 1841. It was the lower end of the hill, on Atwell’s Avenue and near Sabin Street, where the second largest concentration of petitioners lived.
Finally, there were a number of petitioners living just south of Federal Hill and working in the iron foundries near Broad Street.
Based on their names, it appears that these men hailed from various parts of Ireland, with a significant number from the parishes bordering counties Monaghan and Tyrone. The diversity of county background was significant, given the strife within the 1840’s Irish community.
Charles Hackett, a native of County Tyrone, emigrated to the States in June of 1833 and found work as a teamster.  He raised his three children on Smith Hill, another early Irish neighborhood.
David Hamilton was a mason, who at the time of the petition was living near Sabin Street. Nine year later, he was living at the north end of Benefit Street in the city’s North End.
William Hughes, also from County Tyrone, made his living throughout the 1840’s as a boiler-maker. It was hard work, but gave him the wherewithal to send his children to Catholic school, where they could get an education without the discrimination that they were certain to face in public school.
Edward was born just over the border from County Monaghan, in the
parish of Clogher, County Tyrone.

Edward McKenna, another Tyrone man from the parish of Clogher, was perhaps the same Edward McKenna who died nearly five years to the day after signing the petition. Like many of the signers, Edward worked for the Providence Dyeing, Bleaching and Calendering Company. On Monday, November 23, 1846, a windstorm did great damage throughout the city. Fences were destroyed, roofs blown off houses, and a five-story warehouse owned by the calendering company was leveled. In the ruins of that building the body of twenty-two year old Edward was discovered.3 His brother, Patrick, had him buried and honored in stone, but not in the ground for which Edward had petitioned.

W. C. Snow began recruiting skilled Irish textile workers
as early as the 1820’s, when he invited James McKenna
to come to work at the calendering company.
It is perhaps the five story building pictured here that
collapsed, ending Edward McKenna’s life.
Edward’s stone in St. Patrick’s Cemetery,
lies on the ground, decaying like so many
in the neglected cemetery.

Edward McKenna was buried in the newly established St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Just two years after the defeat of their petition, an eight acre plot was purchased on Douglas Avenue. The establishment of St. Patrick’s, along with a very successful week-long retreat in March 1844, helped bring the Irish community together in a way that had not been possible just a few years earlier.4

The Irish community showed its strength in numbers. And now had it’s sacred ground.

These one hundred and nine men were representative of the Irish immigrants who came to America in the years prior to the Great Famine. Whether educated or not, they were gaining a foothold in America.

Four short years later, their community faced its greatest crisis, as first hundreds and then thousands of their fellow countrymen and women poured into Providence. These poor souls were starving, diseased and truly indigent. The first coffin ships to Providence arrived in the early Spring of 1846.

It was these pre-famine Irish immigrants who became the protectors of their poor suffering brethren. The most devastatingly impoverished immigrant group to ever come to America needed immediate support and it was given, for the most part, by their own kind.

St. Patrick’s Cemetery 1846 to 1888. Over 21,000 Irish folk found their final resting place in this “Silent City.”
1 Hayman, Catholicism in Rhode Island, p. 40.
Cemetery Petition to the City Council of the City of Providence, Rhode Island, City Council Boxes, 1841-1841.                Providence City Archives.
3 Manufacturers’ & Farmers’ Journal, November 26, 1846. (thank you, Father Hayman).
4 Hayman, p. 49-50.

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