"A Superior Colored Man ... and a Scotch Woman": Interracial Marriages in New York City, 1850-1870

Article excerpt

When interviewed by a pension official in 1893, Ellen Davis stated that she was fifty-nine years old, employed as a washerwoman, and that she was born in Scotland. The widow spoke affectionately of her husband John Davis, a veteran of Company G of the 26th United States Colored Infantry who had passed away in 1887 at the age of seventy. The two had married at their home in Brooklyn in 1879 and settled down to raise Ellen's three children from her previous marriage. She recalled, "I had three children by my first husband [.H]is name was James Ronald [and] he was a Scotsman. I married him in Chanden, Scotland in 1859. We went to Australia within two weeks after we were married.... and lived on a sheep farm.... I lived there two years when his health began to fail and we moved back to Scotland." Her husband died soon thereafter and Ellen Davis moved to New York City in 1874 to stay with her cousin. Three years later, she met John Davis who worked as a sawyer in a mill. The Davis couple was well-liked in their neighborhood. According to a local official, "He was a superior colored man, a sawyer by trade, and was considered an honest and truthful man.... [she] is a Scotch woman [who] speaks with a strong Scotch accent [and] appears to [be] honest and truthful." (1)

The marriage of John and Ellen Davis was one between a white woman and an African-American man, a Scottish immigrant and a native New Yorker, and two working class laborers. While one might assume that such relationships were rare in the nineteenth century, a close examination of United States Manuscript Census Records in New York City for 1850, 1860, and 1870 indicates that such interracial, cross-cultural marriages constituted five to seven percent of married couples living in predominantly black neighborhoods. The number of interracial marriages varied over the twenty year period under investigation but skyrocketed following the Civil War. Census records indicate that there were 29 interracial marriages in 1850, 19 in 1860, and 116 in 1870. The vast majority of such relationships occurred between black men and white women often between an African-American male born in the United States and a woman who had immigrated from Europe, most of whom were Irish, Scottish, or English. (2) While mixed-race couples in different regions and in different eras faced tremendous resistance, such couples were not uncommon in mid-nineteenth-century New York City. Interracial couples often married in black churches in New York, worked in the city, sent their children to local African schools, and successfully interacted with government institutions, including pension officials, local court representatives, and census takers.

This article examines why such interracial relationships were not unusual to New York City from 1850 to 1870. A number of factors contributed to these unions. Interracial relationships met three criteria that reflected ideas about race, class, and gender during this era. First, these relationships were almost exclusively between immigrant women from Scotland and Ireland and native-born African-American men. They did not take on the taint of improper behavior because these immigrant women were not perceived to be "white." (3) Second, these relationships generally occurred between people of the same class background and between individuals who lived in close proximity to one another in working class neighborhoods. As a consequence, these relationships did not cross class lines and did not violate ideas about proper behavior within a certain class. Third, since these immigrant women were not held to middle class gender standards such liaisons did not infringe on ideals of proper female behavior in the mid-nineteenth century.

Scholars have long discussed the incidence of interracial marriage in the nineteenth century. Such studies have usually focused on the prevalence of such unions in the American South. These works have examined how such relationships fit into the racial caste system in an agricultural society and how they shed light on ideas regarding proper gender roles. …