I received two letters in the mail this week that reminded me of a very kind and gentle man from Somalia. The two letters that I received were sent to me from Paul Campbell, the Providence City Archivist and were from an Irish Famine immigrant with the ubiquitous name of Michael Kelly.
Like Ibrahim from Somali, Michael Kelly had superior skills, and yet was grateful for the humblest of manual labor. Ibrahim escaped with his family from the hell-on-earth that Somalia has become. Michael Kelly was a refugee from the nineteenth century’s worst genocide.
In twenty-first century America, African immigrants are invisible to the public and to employers. In Nineteenth Century Providence, Irish immigrants were hated, and treated as subhuman.
I met Ibrahim at one of his several jobs, working as an attendant in a darkened underground garage at
|Mayor William Mitchell Rodman
the local airport. For years, he and I would talk on my regular trips to the airport. In Somalia, Ibrahim had earned advanced degrees and had a prestigious position in society. In Connecticut, he made minimum wage and had a cleaning business that he hoped would be his gateway to a quality of life for his family.
Like Ibrahim, Michael Kelly had dreams and he had challenges. On March 12, 1858, Michael wrote a letter to the Mayor of Providence, William Mitchell Rodman. On the face of it, Rodman did not seem to be a man whose sympathies might be with a destitute Irishman. The Rodman family made its wealth with slavery, owning and selling Africans and African-Americans over generations. Additionally, he was an outspoken opponent of the drive to give Irish-American citizens equal rights in the 1840’s. But he was a strong proponent of education, and in the case of Michael Kelly, his protector.
Kelly had not been long in the city when Rodman, an influential politician, helped him get work on the Cove project, a construction project that has been described as the “Big Dig” of nineteenth century Providence. The work was hard and it was dangerous.
When that work came to an end, Kelly found himself again without employment. After months of being unemployed, he wrote to Rodman, now mayor of Providence. Kelly began his request thus: “Being impressed with the conviction that suffering humanity does not appeal to your sympathy, in vain I most respectfully beg to trespass on your attention for a few moments.”
To the modern ear, that sounds awfully flowery and wordy. But in a community where so many Irish came without the ability to speak English, let alone write with articulation, Michael Kelly had a special skill.
In his letter, he is humble yet secure in his strength. He asks for help getting a job “as a porter or assistant in some store.” A porter in nineteenth century America was a low paying, backbreaking job, without the security of a weekly wage. Kelly’s suggestion that he could be useful in a store speaks to the skills he knew he possessed and, at the same time, his lack of expectation in being respected enough as an Irish immigrant to get such a position.
Michael was successful in his request. Rodman wrote a letter to John McCarthy, the overseer of Allen’s Print Works, one of the city’s largest textile concerns and a friend to the Irish. A few months later, when McCarthy left his position, the new overseer, another Irishman named Manning, promptly let go most of the existing employees. Among them was Michael Kelly.
Kelly was again without work. A similar situation happened to Ibrahim, when the garage in which he worked became automated and there was no longer a need for someone to process tickets.
Kelly again returned to the mayor, to see if Rodman might influence the new overseer.
As with Ibrahim, I don’t know what employment Kelly got next, but in both men there was a similar attitude. Both men were qualified for skilled work way above the employment that they could expect. And yet both men exhibited optimism that that next position would make their lives better in their new home.
I saw it in the smile and the words of Ibrahim, and I can read it in the words of Michael Kelly. Ibrahim always had a smile and an optimistic air. I would like to think that Michael Kelly carried that with him, as well.