This [photo] is the marriage license of my great-great grandfather, born in Ireland in 1854 and married to a Virginia native in 1884. His race, you’ll notice, is given as “colored.” Since when are Irishmen colored?
My father found this when he started doing family history after he retired. We mostly laughed, a lot, when he revealed it at a family Christmas party: that year he sent us all Kwanza cards as a joke.
But being a historian I couldn’t help but be fascinated.... I thought the “Irish were not white” bit was wildly overstated.
I was clearly wrong, and looking into it a little more resulted in a whole class lesson around the image of the Irish in the 19th century and the range of anti-Irish nativism. It focused on the malleability of stereotypes, and how what seems “natural” and obvious in one era seems odd in the next.
But still how to explain this document? It was his marriage certificate: surely even the greenest Irish immigrant knew enough to avoid being classed as “colored.”
If you take a close look at it, it gets more and more interesting....
Read the whole thing.
(h/t commenter HCCarey in this really interesting comment thread on Ta-Nehisi Coates's Atlantic blog about mutual cultural understanding, or the lack thereof, between American Jews and African-Americans.)