Helping Hands Along the Way

Emmett O'Connell, Contibutor
October / November 2005

Emmett O’Connell explores New York’s Children’s Law of 1875 and the G.I. Bill of Rights, 1945, and the impact of these laws on the growth of America.

In 1870 New York City was home to 200,000 people of Irish birth, more than any other city in the world, including Dublin. Under the tutelage of Tammany Hall the survivors and descendants of the Irish Famine and the American Civil War had wrested control of City Hall and its political patronage. Yet the tide of immigration from Ireland, Italy and other European countries continued to swell the numbers of poverty stricken, dislocated populace in the city.

To the Irish in particular there were fewer words more foul to describe a political opponent than to label him a “Reformer.” This was a term used by the elite privileged class who had lost control in the ballot box and were seeking to regain the primacy of their beliefs and social order by campaigning for enactment of such objectives by law.

Under the guise of “good citizenship” and “Christian Aid” organizations the Reformers canvassed the State of New York Legislature to enact laws that would enable them legally to re-assert their power base.

By 1853 legal mechanisms were already in place enabling Protestant reformers to remove children from the families of the poor, the vast majority of which would have been of immigrant Irish stock. At its most heinous, the truancy law enabled citizens to seize any child on the street during school hours. If taken into custody a second time the child would be committed to a “Christian Aid Society” for the remainder of his or her childhood.

By the mid 1870’s an estimated 10,000 children a year were being snatched from their parents or seized on the streets of New York City and “placed-out” to good Christian homes in the Midwest. This practice led to the infamous “Orphan Train” (pictured above) which regularly transported the legally kidnapped and largely Irish Catholic children away from family, relatives, parish and city, all in the name of “Christian Aid.”

Such “good works” did not come cheap, however, and the powdered, primed, and starched elites had to dig into their pockets to maintain the children until they were “placed-out.” Once again, by lobbying the state legislature they succeeded in having the Children’s Law enacted. This was intended to enable the Reformers to both expand the system and to guarantee the cost of maintaining the children until they were “placed-out.”

However, the Catholic Union lobbying group wasn’t idle either, and it gained sufficient support in securing an amendment stipulating that the children be cared for in institutions of their own religious background.

The nuns in New York City, mostly Irish born or Irish-American, immediately grasped the opportunity that the new law offered. The Sisters of Mercy, who first came to New York from Dublin in 1848, quickly informed the Superintendent of the Poor that the Institution of Mercy would take charge of any number of young girls at whatever rate the government proposed. Soon, the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and other Catholic institutions followed Mercy’s example.

By 1885, Catholic nuns were rearing 80 percent of New York City’s state-dependent children, and the dreaded “Orphan Train” was brought to an end. It was this network of church, school and politics that kept the urban Irish community together in the face of religious intolerance, massive dislocation and grinding poverty.

The G.I. Bill of Rights

On 22 June 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act” better known as the “G.I. Bill of Rights.” Considered by many to be the last piece of New Deal legislation, it has since been recognized as one of the most important Acts of Congress in the 20th century.

The G.I. Bill provided for an ex-serviceman’s college tuition, plus books, fees and a subsistence allowance. In the peak year of 1947 veterans accounted for 49 percent of college enrollments. Typically, the elites opposed the bill. The President of Harvard was against the idea of allowing servicemen to go to college. Others feared veterans would lower educational standards. Many universities, however, used the opportunity to expand their facilities. The University of Michigan, for example, had under 10,000 students prior to the war. In 1948 its enrollment exceeded 30,000.

Few groups took to the G.I. Bill like the Irish. Their desire for education was always strong with the backing of the teaching brothers and nuns, not to mention Irish mothers. And with tuition and expenses paid, plus a living allowance, they poured into colleges and universities and put in place a giant stepping-stone to their advancement in industry and finance in the decades that followed.

We Irish didn’t just make it on our own, much as we may like to think so. We had big helping hands along the way. Let’s not forget whose they were ♦



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