On July 19, I posted a blog about the debunking of a myth. The myth, spread by Professor Richard Jensen, is that No Irish Need Apply (NINA) signs and ads were not encountered on more than a handful of occasions by Irish immigrants in the United States. A young high school student successfully refuted his claim. More on that student in the second half of this article. First I want to talk about the phenomenal reaction to her research.
For background, in 2002 Professor Richard Jensen, of the University of Illinois Chicago published a scholarly article saying that “No Irish Need Apply” ads never existed beyond a couple of isolated instances. Jensen went on to claim that “the Irish” had created a “myth of victimization” around these signs and ads in order to use alleged past discrimination for a variety of nefarious purposes. On July 4, 2015, a high school girl, Rebecca Fried, published an article in the Oxford-based Journal of Social History showing that Jensen was wrong, that there were, in fact, many No Irish Need Apply ads, signs, and mentions of ads and signs in newspaper articles from the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
I first heard about the high school student’s article on an Irish American web site. I had read Jensen’s article when it came out in 2002 and questioned it then. I knew of at least two documented uses of “No Irish Need Apply” ads, and I suspected that there must be more. When I read Rebecca Fried’s article, my girlfriend Michele Ascione volunteered to search the database of one local newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle, and she found dozens more ads that Fried had not listed. This convinced me that Jensen was wrong and I used my resources as a Hofstra Law School professor to access databases and find even more No Irish Need Apply ads.
I put my own article on the subject up on the evening of July 19. I knew it would draw the interest of readers and that it was likely to be popular. Since Michele and I had invested a number of hours in it, I hoped it would be one of the most-viewed articles of July. When I woke up the next morning, it had already become the most popular new article of the year.
Generally non-media affiliated bloggers consider getting 1,000 to 2,000 “hits” a reasonable goal for an article. By the end of July, the article had picked up more than 40,000 hits. On August 1, it was getting more than 1,000 hits per hour. As of today, the total number has risen above 125,000.
The Long Island Wins article was important in spreading what would otherwise have been a limited-readership academic article. When professors in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia read the Long Island Wins article, they sent it on to their students and really helped make it viral.
Newsweek picked up the story soon thereafter, citing Long Island Wins as a source. Author Dan Bier wrote that:
Jensen argues that the “No Irish Need Apply” slogan—the infamous discriminatory display against Irish immigrants to the United States in the 19th century—is largely a myth. He contends that the slogan, referred to as “NINA,” is a case of projected self-victimization that Irish communities enlisted to evoke sympathy or encourage immigrant solidarity, while also suggesting that evidence of NINA’s actual use was exceedingly rare.
There’s a major problem with the Jensen/NINA thesis, though: It’s complete bunk.
The article praises Fried and goes on to ask if we have changed that much as a nation from the NINA days given the current discrimination against Mexican immigrants.
The story was next picked up in a big way by the Daily Beast. Ben Collins revealed that Rebecca Fried, who most of us assumed was college bound, was completing 8th grade when the article was submitted and is only now entering high school.
You are entitled to a spit take. It was a fourteen year old who debunked the college professor.
Here is how Ben Collins describes the genesis of what is now an internationally known scholarly article:
Rebecca never set out to prove the [Jensen] thesis wrong. She was just interested in an article her dad brought home from work one day.
“Now and then I bring home stuff for the kids to read if I think they will find it interesting or will convey some lesson,” says Michael Fried, Rebecca’s father. “Half the time they don’t read them at all. Sometimes they’ll read something if I suggest it. Nothing has ever come of any of these things other than this one.”
Rebecca wasn’t even trying to disprove her dad—let alone an academic at the University of Illiniois-Chicago. She just figured she’d Google the words and see what came up over 100 years ago.
“Just for the fun of it, I started to run a few quick searches on an online newspaper database that I found on Google,” she says. “I was really surprised when I started finding examples of NINA ads in old 19th-century newspapers pretty quickly.”
So she started collecting a handful of examples, then dozens, then more. She went to as many newspaper databases as she could. Then she thought, somebody had to have done this before, right?
“I didn’t see anything right away. This led me to wonder if it might be worth writing up in some form,” she says. “I showed my dad right away when I started finding these NINA ads. We just didn’t know whether this was already widely known and, if it wasn’t, whether it would be viewed as a topic worth considering for publication.”
Rebecca’s father sought advice from a historian whom they had seen cited by Jensen as someone who erroneously believed that NINA ads existed. Kirby Miller is a retired history professor from the University of Missouri. He has a long career as a scholar of immigration history and he served as a consultant to a PBS documentary on immigration to the United States.
When Jensen’s original article appeared, Miller had criticized it. According to the Daily Beast:
“From the first, my responses to Jensen’s claims had been strongly negative, as were those of a few other scholars, but, for various reasons, most historians, social scientists, journalists, et cetera accepted or even embraced Jensen’s arguments,” says Miller…
Miller says he knew something was fishy from the outset. First of all, he’d seen the advertisements years ago—well before something like Google Scholar made them easy to search for—as a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the 1970s. But something else tipped him off.
“Even more suspicious is that it seemed to fit into a political or ideological framework, in addition to his [Jensen’s] own writing, which was obviously polemically bent,” he says…. Miller says he wrote to Jensen at one point to contest it.
“Jensen’s email response to my criticisms was that they were to be expected because I was an Irish-American and a Catholic,” says Miller. “In fact, as I responded to him, I am neither.”
The Daily Beast article is well worth reading for the background on the high schooler. The question a lot of people have asked me since my blog post appeared is whether Rebecca Fried will become a historian. The Daily Beast delved into this:
Now, Rebecca says she might continue along this same path, “exploring other areas where digitized newspaper evidence might supply new historical insights.” She thinks there “might still be some low-hanging fruit for researchers.”
But maybe not. Maybe she’ll be something completely different. She’s 14 years old. She has to start high school in a month.
“For the longer term, it’s too early to tell,” she says. “But I’ve become really interested in history through this process, and I think that would be an incredibly fascinating career path.”
If she does want to be an historian, when she goes to college about a half-decade from now, it’ll be time for her to tell a story no one will believe, once again.
And, for a second time, Professor Miller will be happy to help her prove it.
Rebecca Fried’s article has now been covered and praised everywhere from the Washington Post and the Smithsonian Magazine to Seventeen Magazine.
Unfortunately, Professor Jensen has not responded graciously to Rebecca Fried’s finds. He has gone on the attack against her (and me). That will be the subject of my next post on the high school student who confounded the college professor.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.