Rebecca Fried had no intention of preserving the record of a persecuted people whose strife was ready to be permanently written off in the eyes of history as exaggerated, imagined, or even invented.But with the internet, it's relatively easy to fact-check even peer-reviewed research, in this example by retired Illinois-Chicago historian Richard J. Jensen.
The fact that Irish vividly "remember" NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, 2 archivist, or museum curator has ever located one 3; no photograph or drawing exists.4 No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one.Such a story might have potential, as the Daily Beast article notes, to change the nature of the contemporary Oppression Olympics. But it's the way Ms Fried found evidence to the contrary, and the academy's reaction, that I wish to address.
After only couple of hours Googling it, Rebecca, a 14-year-old, had found out these signs had, in fact, existed all along. Not only in newspaper listings—in which they appeared in droves—but, after further research, in shop windows, too.Parents: engage your childrens' brains. Good stuff can happen. Ms Fried is at Sidwell Friends but it's just as important if your youngsters are at DeKalb High or Milwaukee Hamilton.
The Irish were persecuted in the American job market—and precisely in the overt, literally written-down way that was always believed.
All of this would have been written off as a myth if it weren’t for Rebecca Fried, a rising high school freshman—who one of the preeminent scholars on the Irish diaspora in the United States now calls a “hero” and “quite extraordinary”—and who simply couldn’t believe it, either.
Rebecca never set out to prove the 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.”Evidently not, and after a few struggles (read the article and note the way Professor Jensen threw an identity politics card on a colleague who was advising Ms Fried) there's a peer-reviewed note in The Oxford Journal of Social History written by a high schooler.
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?
Well done, and it's consistent with stories I heard out of Detroit. Small sample, but two young ladies independently reported that their grandparents had dropped the leading O'- from their family names, the better to pass as Not Irish.