Black History Month 2020 – John Hughes and Slavery

This Black History Month, we are recognising and highlighting some of the experiences of enslaved people. These experiences are a shocking and unavoidable part of the story of emigration from Ulster to North America over the 18th and 19th centuries. They are important stories to be told. As a museum, we acknowledge the exploitative and harmful impacts of life in the New World for enslaved people. We commit to tell more of those stories and do them justice.

Image: The Hughes House at the Ulster American Folk Park
The Hughes House at the Ulster American Folk Park

John Hughes was the first Archbishop of New York from 1850 until his death in 1864. He left Tyrone in 1817 having spent his boyhood in this house, now at the Folk Park. Whilst he never owned enslaved people, John had conflicting views on slavery which changed over his life.

John started at grammar school in the local town, Clogher, and had ambitions of becoming a priest. However difficult farming conditions and falling prices at the end of the Napoleonic War forced him to leave education and take up work as an apprentice gardener. He went to America and got a job as a gardener at a Catholic college where he wanted to study for the priesthood. The job meant being a slave overseer. The Catholic college owned its own enslaved people. In time he trained as a priest at the college and eventually became a bishop.

When Archbishop of New York he was ambivalent about slavery, as was the Catholic Church in America. Irish Catholics feared competition for jobs from freed enslaved people. Some Southern Catholics, including Jesuits, owned farms that were fully enmeshed in the slave economy. Hughes had controlled the work of enslaved people while working as a gardener, he felt sympathy for the enslaved people back then. As Archbishop, however, he did not like the politics of the leaders of the abolition movement. The leaders tended to be for prohibition, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Hughes was, nevertheless, for the Union in the run up to the American Civil War and encouraged the Irish to join the Union cause. He even advocated conscripting men into the Northern Army.