The family of Rebecca Fried, the 14-year old schoolgirl from Washington DC who disproved a renowned professor’s insistence that “No Irish Need Apply” signs rarely existed, has finally explained how she did it.
When we ran this story on IrishCentral recently it got huge attention across the US, but now the family have told The Daily Beast website how it all happened and the Washington Post has also followed up on it.
After all, it isn’t every day that an 8th-grader disproves an established scholar’s widely accepted theory using nothing more than Google, her natural intelligence and a bit of gumption. But if the last few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that Rebecca Fried isn’t your average 14-year-old.
Fried is the student from Washington DC who recently disproved the assertions of Professor Richard Jensen, retired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that the prevalence of “No Irish Need Apply” signs was an invention of the Irish American imagination.
In an article published in the Summer edition of the Oxford Journal of Social History (the same journal where, in 2002, Jensen published his article “’No Irish Need Apply’: A Myth of Victimization”), Fried presented dozens of examples refuting Jensen’s assertion that “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, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists.”
And what about his (until now) largely unchallenged claim that “the NINA phenomenon is an ahistorical memory to be explained by ‘delu[sional]’ group psychology and ‘the political need to be bona-fide victims’ rather than by the fact of historic discrimination”?
Fried argues that “the documentary record better supports the earlier view that Irish-Americans have a communal recollection of NINA advertising because NINA advertising did, in fact, exist over a substantial period of United States history, sometimes on a fairly widespread basis.”
So how did all of this come about? Rebecca and her father, Michael, shared their story with The Daily Beast.
Michael, a lawyer, often brings home articles on various subjects for his kids to read.
“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,” he told TDB.
But Jensen’s article piqued Rebecca’s curiosity, and she decided to do some Googling, just to see what she would find.
“Just for the fun of it, I started to run a few quick searches on an online newspaper database that I found on Google. . . . I was really surprised when I started finding examples of NINA ads in old 19th-century newspapers pretty quickly,” she recalled.
Fried showed the examples to her father, and the two of them started to wonder if it could really be that no one had found all of these examples already? Granted, it had been almost 13 years since Jensen’s article was published – an eternity as far as information and the Internet go.
The Washington Post reported that Rebecca also caught Jensen out on another issue, that is whether there were ever Irish demonstrations against NINA signs.
He claimed that “there is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign” which had been alleged.
Rebecca pointed out in her article that an 1899 letter to the editor of the Irish World recounted the story of a mob of angry Irish Americans destroying a grocery store that posted that sign.
Noting that Jensen’s original article cited a specific detractor, they took their findings directly to him – Kerby Miller, a now-retired professor of history at the University of Missouri and author of a seminal work on Irish immigration called “Emigrants and Exiles” (Oxford Press).
“We didn’t know who to contact, but we saw that Professor Jensen’s article cited Professor Miller as someone who had erroneously believed in NINA, so we thought he might be a good person to try, and he was obviously an expert in this area,” Rebecca explained.
“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,” Miller told TDB.
Miller was amazed with the findings and guided Rebecca and her father through the steps of crafting a scholarly essay. However, he emphasizes that all the work and writing were Rebecca’s.
“She didn’t need any help from me on what she did,” he says. “I’d be surprised if she changed a single word,’ he said. “I don’t want people to think she did this because she got expert advice, [Rebecca and Michael] truly deserve all of the credit.”
In July, when IrishCentral broke the news of Rebecca’s findings, conversation exploded in the comments section, eventually leading to an exchange between Fried and Jensen, below.
Their exchange caught the attention of a number of other commenters, and was even the topic of a thread on the Bad History section of Reddit.
The record is now changed on NINA. Just yesterday, an article on the history of Irish immigrants in America on VOX.com was updated to reflect Rebecca’s findings. Jensen’s theory is no longer taken as a given, but the subject of a lively debate that is altering the perspective on the Irish American experience.
As for what the future holds for Rebecca, first things first – she’s starting high school in September.
But other scholarly pursuits may be on the horizon.
Rebecca expressed interest in “exploring other areas where digitized newspaper evidence might supply new historical insights.
“I’ve become really interested in history through this process, and I think that would be an incredibly fascinating career path,” she added.
We wish you every success, Rebecca!