I first became aware of their existence in faded penciled sketches from the dance halls of New York’s Five Points neighborhood.
Perhaps it was their happy faces that made the young Irish women and their African-American dancing partners seem so natural and unaffected. Only later did I discover that these particular inter-racial couples were called Amalgamationists.
The very word itself seems Dickensian and has long gone out of currency. But Amalgamationists were a well-known presence in the socially liberated environs of the Five Points.
Picture New York in 1844 - on the cusp of the great Irish Potato Famine - a raucous, though manageable, port city. Within a decade it had been swamped by up to a hundred thousand hungry, frightened Irish, glad to put their feet down on any steady ground after a brutal trans-Atlantic journey.
It was the first major emigration to the US that contained equal numbers of men and women. The vast majority came from very rural backgrounds. Pete Hamill once put it to me, “the newly arrived Irish saw more people in their first ten minutes on Broadway than they had in all their lives back home.”
They had no qualification for urban living and were instantly thrown into fierce competition for the humblest of jobs. Is it any wonder that some of the men cracked under the pressure and retreated to the many pubs and shebeens of the Five Points, while others headed for California and the Gold Rush.
Irish women didn’t crack – there were children to be looked after; besides a hardscrabble living could be made taking in washing, and there were kitchens to be run and sculleries to be scrubbed in the great Yankee houses uptown.
The African-American men in New York City were mostly sailors, waiters, carriage drivers and dockworkers; they were a step up the social ladder from the arriving Irish. With a shortage of African-American women in Manhattan it was only a matter of time until unions were formed.
It didn’t hurt that dancehalls were mostly African-American owned at a time when dancing was the national pastime; besides, inter-racial socializing had been common in the Five Points for years.
Amalgramationist couples and their children stuck together and moved into the same areas, Hart’s Alley being the best known. A new social experiment was afoot; though viewed suspiciously by wealthy uptown reformers it was not considered a threat because of the apparent stability and compatibility of the couples.
But tensions mounted after the Civil War broke out. The Irish felt they were being discriminated against on the docks whenever African-American longshoremen were hired. Then on Jan 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation; the fear amongst the Irish – fanned by unscrupulous Democratic politicians – was that New York would soon be flooded by liberated southern slaves.
The first compulsory draft into the Union army followed soon after; it was bitterly resented by the Irish particularly since the wealthy could choose not to serve for a payment of $300.
On July 13th rioting flared across New York City. African-Americans were attacked and special venom was directed towards their Irish wives. Hart’s Alley itself was besieged and almost set afire.
The Amalgamationists fought back, pouring burning starch from the rooftops onto the rioters. The inter-racial couples held out until the Union Army arrived, but by then the free and easy social climate of the city had changed utterly.
In the following months over 50% of African-Americans moved out of downtown Manhattan and with them the Amalgamationists.
Where did they go? More than likely they were subsumed into African-American neighborhoods in Staten Island, Long Island and the new “colored community” forming up in the farmlands of Harlem.
Where once they were a vital presence, suddenly the Amalgamationists were gone. All that’s left behind is the occasional mention in dusty history books and the happy faces of our lost sisters dancing with their handsome partners in faded sketches from long vanished Five Points dancehalls.