Draft Riots

Why I didn't write about Irish soda bread

Dear Bread friends,

A couple of weeks ago, I had vague plans to post something about Irish soda bread, but when I woke up on St. Patrick’s Day and learned about the murders in Atlanta, flour seemed unimportant.

Eerily, on Tuesday night March 16, I’d watched a lecture on the Draft Riots, so raging people were on my mind. The riots in northern cities began as working class resistance to the Civil War draft, but the protests took a racial turn. White workers in northern cities were already agitated about the Civil War, and what the freedom of enslaved people might mean for their jobs. To compound matters further, rich northerners could buy their way out of the fight $300, an amount more than a year’s income for relatively well-paid workers in Troy, New York’s iron industry. The terms of the draft stacked the kindling for class warfare.

The morning of July 14, 1863, a mob gathered steam in my city. Troy hugs the Hudson River for almost seven miles, and protests began in the south end, near the ironworks, threading past various factories and pulling workers to their cause. Rioters carried furnace hammers and iron bars, tools of their trades. They rallied at Mount Olympus, a giant rock north of downtown. From there, some rioters rushed into nearby St. Peter's Church, ringing the bell to gather more; others began to wreak havoc. 

Many of Troy’s 900 Black residents fled as they learned of the unfolding drama. The crowd swelled to 2000 and more throughout the day, threatening to batter down the draft building, the courthouse, the jail, businesses and private homes. The mob attacked the Republican (pro-Civil War) newspaper, throwing everything except the presses and engines into the street. The Whig (anti-war) paper’s offices went untouched. Fathers Havermans and McDonough managed to keep the mob from burning down the Presbyterian Church on Liberty Street, where the African-American community worshiped. Scattered looting continued through the night, and general unrest continued until August, when a fund of $200,000 was established to pay the conscription fees for men from Troy.

Poster by Dara Greenwald, Olivia Robinson & Josh Macphee, announcing and accompanying their incredible installation in Troy, when an inflatable model of the church was filled with sounds, images & words about enslavement and abolition. Buy the poster at Just Seeds.

Troy’s destruction was second only to New York City's, but I don’t know anything about the aftermath. Was there a conscious effort to make the community that fled feel safe so they’d want to return and rebuild? How does a city restore trust?

That question is on my mind right now, not just because of the fear rippling after Atlanta, or worry over the outcome of Derek Chauvin’s trial, but because my city has squandered an opportunity to face its racism. After last summer, Governor Cuomo mandated municipalities to rethink and reinvent policing. The Troy commission was composed of mostly white people, and worked without much input from the Black and brown communities that are most impacted by police brutality. The report pales in comparison to others in NYS, some of which even name racism as a problem. Our report is not revising what we’ve got; it focuses on restoring community trust of the police as-is. I wish it began to tackle the systemic racism that is in our circulatory system as a white-led, white-majority city. Addressing racism is tricky for cities and individuals, but we can’t begin to work on this problem until we accept it exists.  

I believe this NOT ME tendency is exacerbated by the violence and murders we’ve seen in Atlanta and in other predominantly Black and brown communities around the country. Watching these most visible and overt forms of racism, there’s a risk of thinking that only marauding white supremacists are the problem. But racism is an ugly continuum, and prejudicial othering is happening in ourselves and in our society every moment of every day. Much as I try to distance myself from the white violence that’s making life so dangerous for so many, I am made of this mud. I am muddy with assumptions that keep me from seeing other people as fully human; these small dehumanizations, when stretched to extremes, endanger the lives of people who are not white. I need to chip away at noticing and understanding and unlearning my own pervasive racisms just as much as my city, and our country, needs to work on our collective self. 

I learned about imperialism and orientalism in high school and college, yet only the Atlanta murders made me aware of how such history lives. Before it, I didn’t have to notice. Now I see that anti-Asian reflexes are at the root of hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders that swelled in the pandemic.  

I don’t like going to marches and rallies, but I went to a stop Asian hate vigil in Albany. I felt awkward and stuck to the edges, but my discomfort is silly compared to the threats non-white people face. We can’t keep having the Americas that we do, where life is relatively easy and safe and for some of us, and full of limits and risks for others of us. 

The anti-Asian righteousness that fueled the murders of eight people in Atlanta, six of them working class women of Asian descent, didn't begin in a moment. It will take ages to dismantle the ills of everyday racism and evils of white supremacy that are built into America, but we need to start. 

I hope you too are finding ways to acknowledge the troubles that are boiling in this country and to support people who are vulnerable in these fragile moments. 

Yours, Amy

Here’s some ways to engage further on these ideas:

My bread friend Mo Cheeks is further along in this journey. Read his newsletter here. And sign up for it!

Read work by writers of Asian descent, like Ocean Vuong. His novel “On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous'' is keep-you-awake beautiful, as is this interview he did with Krista Tippett.

Regional grain pal & Umi Organic founder Lola Milholland wrote A Brief History of Japanese American Community Cookbooks.  

Check out this great poster fundraiser from Just Seeds Collective member Jess X Snow. 

Turn to this or another list of Anti-Asian Violence Resources.

Credits:

Thank you to Michael Barrett, director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway for your research on the Civil War, and for being ready to answer my questions. 

Thanks to Troy Public Library for hosting Michael’s talk on the draft riots -- isn’t it wonderful that libraries exist? 

New York Times article about Troy’s draft riots -- please note that this was printed by the Whig newspaper, whose position was anti-war.