- A conversation with six De La Salle Christian Brothers. All are Irish Americans over 75 years old. All of their parents were immigrants to the United States. The Brothers were asked to talk about their personal histories and their experiences of discrimination and acceptance.
My parents knew each other in Ireland. Came here in the 1920's, married here and lived in a high-class ghetto, Ascension parish (lower West Side, New York City). The parish was mostly Irish; I went to a Brothers' (DeLa Salle) school. When the neighborhood went down, we moved up to the Bronx.
I was born in Scotland and lived there until I was six. My mother was raised in Ireland and both her parents were born in Ireland. There were no jobs in Ireland so they went to Scotland. My father came to the United States to gain passage for our family in 1928. His first stop was at Halifax, Nova Scotia, then on to New York City. He didn't go through Ellis Island. The authorities came on board to check us. They asked if you were Scotch or Irish. My mother told him to say he was both. Scotch or Irish did not refer to your nationality; it referred to your religion. If you were Scotch, you were Protestant, if Irish, Catholic. Catholics were discriminated against.
Both of my parents were born in Ireland. My mother was from Kerry. My father from Meath. They met in the United States. My father went to Canada first, then moved to Highbridge, an Irish, Jewish, Italian ghetto just north of Yankee Stadium.
My mother was from Donegal; my father was from County Louth. They came to the United States married and lived in Glen Cove, Long Island. My mother was a chambermaid, my father an electrician. After I was born, my father got a job in Connecticut. He died up there of the flu in 1918. My mother was left with three children and couldn't cope so she took us back to Donegal. Then my mother and sister returned to find work in the United States as housekeeper and chambermaid. They went all the way to California and then back to Rumson, New Jersey, working for Major Bowes.
I went to Industrial school in Ireland; I walked four miles to the school with my shoes off to save them. In 1926, my aunt took my brother and me to the United States; I hadn't seen my mother for a long time. I didn't remember what she looked like. I remember walking off the gangplank and this woman came over and hugged me; she was my mother. I remember taking a taxi and it was the first time I saw a Negro man.
I went to Holy Name school; lived in poverty. My mother was not able to pay the $29 rent so she was renting out some of the rooms. We moved to 103rd St. and got another month's free rent. You never told the landlord you were moving. That was a common practice of the Irish at the time. Then we moved to 101st Street, then to 98th St.; we were always moving someplace. We finally settled at 766 Columbus Ave. I still went to Holy Name (Irish parish) school.
We were called 'Micks' (a derogatory term). There were some Italians there and some conflict. I went back to Donegal in 1985 for my 50th anniversary (of profession as religious brother). It hadn't changed a bit.
Shift now from Holy Name parish to St. Gabriel's on the East Side. My mom came from Tiperrary and my dad from County Louth. My grandparents were from County Monaghan. As a kid I never knew my grandparents. My parents never spoke of their parents. I used to wonder, "What's a grandfather?". In my father's family, there were 3 boys, 2 girls. My dad did not get along with his father. My grandfather would not give him any money to go to the United States.
My father came before 1916 (Easter rebellion in Ireland). He had a tough time getting a job.
A friend fixed him up with my mother and they moved to St. Jerome's parish in the Bronx in the late 1920's. There were Germans, Italians, Polish and, of course, Irish and one black, a blacksmith. We never communicated with the blacks; we were not prejudiced; we were ignorant. Our parents were not that concerned about it (blacks).
As kids we never heard of a Protestant church; our parents told us not to go into a Protestant church; we didn't question it. We went to the Brothers' ( De La Salle Christian) school and paid 50 cents a month, if you could afford it. We got a good education practically free.
My parents had five boys in a row. My father was a handyman, working in maintenance in a nursing home, then in Brooklyn in Fanny Farmer's Candy. I went to Barrytown High School (a novitiate for training De La Salle brothers); I wonder now if I was escaping from my home. My mother never knew what a Brother was.
We didn't experience any type of bigotry except as kids when we went to the Jewish section; we'd start a fight. It wasn't bitterness; it was recreation. My mom or dad didn't speak against any group.
My father came over here (United States) because he had a sister here. He settled in Greenpoint, New York. He was born in 1888, came over here in 1917 and got involved in the draft (World War I). He was a supply sergeant, went to France and came back here after the war. My mother came from County Mayo. She was one of six children and worked with her sister as a domestic. She had a talent for cooking and worked for Lady Astor for a number of years. My parents met at someone's house. My father got a job as a security man with National City Bank on Madison Avenue; at Christmas time he would bring home the equal of half his salary in gifts. He could remember people's names.
I went to St. Cecilia's school, run by the Brothers (De La Salle). There were a number of Italians there. There was boys' department and a girls' department. It was a large five-story building and had no electricity so we were sent home when it was dark and rainy. Women (Sisters of St. Joseph) taught the first six grades; the Brothers taught the last two and a half. There were a lot of Irish in the parish and the next parish; St. Anthony's also had a lot of Irish. I may have seen one Protestant church in St. Anthony's parish. There were no blacks at all. Another nearby parish was St. Stanislaus where nuns taught kids in Polish; even today there are lots of Polish still there. I went to school at St. Cecilia's for eight years; my cousin was in the Brothers and I thought I'd like that way of life. My father was active in the parish and served at Mass a lot, so I went to the Brothers Prep School in Barrytown, ninety-five miles north of New York City. It was a paradise. Good facilities, good teachers, good food.
I'm not like the rest of this crowd. I'm not a New Yorker; I'm a Bostonian. We're very different from New Yorkers. Both of my parents were born in County Kerry but did not know each other in Ireland. My mother was born in 1884. My father was in the United States Navy; shoveled coal all around the world, then left the Navy, AWOL. Then he joined again using his brother-in-law's name. My parents married in 1914. I once asked my mother if marrying my father was a step up. Mother said she was making more money than Father when they married ($4 vs. $3). My mother was the youngest in her family and went though school in Ireland. She landed in the United States in 1905; she was a housekeeper. Their first child was born in 1915, the second in 1916, the third in 1918, the fourth in 1920, the fifth in 1922. We all went to school near the Irish section in Boston. Blacks lived not far away. My mother recounted for me her first time seeing a black person in Boston. She was fascinated. I went to Boston Latin school and took Greek and Latin. There were two black kids there. They were the brightest kids I ever saw.
Experiences of discrimination and acceptance:
There was discrimination against Catholics more than against Irish. A lot of the time we were growing up was the Depression and all were going through the same hard luck; it was shared, not discrimination, an awkward time. When they first got to the United States, they got jobs but when Wall Street went under (1929), for seven or eight years it was tough.
My father belonged to the Rainbow Division of the 69th, he was humorous and his relationship with blacks was often funny; the way he'd speak about them as persons but in a generous way. He didn't think portraying blacks in minstrel shows was putting them down. It was part of the culture. There was a certain affection and friendliness. I didn't experience any antipathy against Jews or Blacks but a lot of jokes. He'd leave Highbridge at 4:30 or 5 am to make a 7:30 appointment in Greenpoint. His job was steady; we never experienced the poverty others did. My mother controlled all the money; my father would give her his check.
My father worked in construction but he was also a precinct captain for Jimmy Hines in the local Tammany club. When he needed a job, he went to Hines with out a job and said he wanted one. Hines wrote something on a piece of paper, sealed it in an envelope and told him to take it to the Municipal Building tomorrow. At home, they steamed it open and it said, " Take care of him; he's a good guy." My father got a civil service job until he retired.
When I was a kid, I didn't know what he ( Hines) did, but that was sure the name. "Go see Jimmy" when you needed this or that; one of the things he did was to make sure every kid in the neighborhood got a Christmas present. You'd go the 24th Precinct on 100th Street, get a ticket from the cop, which then let you get on line Christmas morning after Mass at Hines Club at 96th and Columbus Ave. When you went in, you got a pretty decent present. The police were another support system for the Irish. Hines gave big parties; he was also a judge; got elected to Congress and reelected when he was in jail, like Curley in Boston.
Hines in New York, Curley in Boston (James Michael Curley, established a Tammany Club in Boston, was elected mayor in 1914, dominated Boston politics for forty years), Hague in New Jersey (Frank Hague was elected Mayor of Jersey City in 1917 and was mayor until 1947) were just the beginning of minorities moving into power. Curley was a hood in some ways. In Boston, the Brahmins (elite Protestant families) had already taken control of the city.
Political leader Pete McGinnis in New York City got my father a job; we could go to Rockaway (beach and amusement park), for 2,4,6,8 weeks on my father's salary. If you had a job, you felt secure. We waited every week for that paycheck so we could go out to the store, often to buy food for somebody else. Duggan Bakery during the Depression would distribute what was not sold.
During the Depression, I took up shining shoes. I went under the Queensborough Bridge and brought back the fire creosote blocks. There was no hot water so I had to plan ahead to heat water on the stove. I was walking through my old neighborhood recently and told my companion that I was afraid. I was never afraid to walk there in the old days. My companion said, "That's because in the old days you were one of them."
My uncle was asked in interviews for jobs if he drank. As far as which ethnic group was ahead of the other, the Jews were ahead. They owned the stores. In my first teaching position, I put on a minstrel show in blackface and thought nothing of it. We didn't have associations with blacks so what we learned about them came from the radio (Amos and Andy) and the movies. It was mental conditioning. The term 'nigger' was often was used as a put down and as a race identifier.
I thought it was the name you called blacks, like Irish or Polish. When I was about five years old, a black family moved into the apartment above us. They had a boy about my age and I was happy to have a friend to play with. The first day we were together, I said to him, "you're the first nigger I ever had as a friend." He started to cry and hit me. He never played with me again.
I lived on 109th Street and had absolutely no relationship with blacks. They were in the next block over and the Jews lived in Highbridge like the Koreans today. They owned the shops.
We went to Rockaway for the whole summer and associated with them ( blacks); there was a section where cops kept them in their place; cops made sure they stayed in their area. There was one beach where they stayed and then went home. Where to live, where to go, was handed down by relatives, and by parish association also. In Rockaway there was no sign saying blacks and white here or there, but the police wouldn't tolerate being in the wrong place.
There wasn't any prejudice between Irish and blacks. Prejudice that did exist was religious prejudice. The Protestants thought Al Smith (Alfred Emanuel Smith, Irish Catholic Governor of New York, Democratic Presidential Candidate, 928) was Satan, even though he didn't make it.
Manhattan College, (Founded by De La Salle Brothers in 1853) was first set up at 131st and Broadway. That was the same time as the Know Nothing Party in politics. Manhattan College grew out of a school called School of the Holy Infancy. The name, Manhattan Academy was deliberately chosen so as not to identify with the church. The name, Manhattan, bettered the chances that Albany (seat of state government) would approve its start up. Eighteen trustees were required. Eight were Brothers, ten were lay persons. Eight of the ten laymen were non-Catholic. In the 1960's, when we were trying to get government assistance for the College, we had to prove we were an independent institution and not under control of the Church because the Blaine Amendment from the last century prohibited state aid to institutions under religious control. New York State today has the most discriminatory laws about education in the country.
We were never taught anything about prejudice. Not even in our religious formation (training to become Brothers). Think of the thousands of sisters and priests that closed, or opened, our minds to racial problems.
- The interview with the DeLaSalle Christians Brothers took place on 12/3/99 at DeLaSalle Hall, Lincroft, New Jersey.
Arrangements for the interview were made by Dr. Lawrence Huggins, Professor of Management at Manhattan College and friend of the DeLaSalle Christian Brothers
Permission to record and reproduce interview information was given by all of the men who spoke.