In the 1840s, thousands of Irish immigrants fled the Great Famine and came to America. If dealing with starvation, gruesome ship conditions, and persecution by the British wasn't enough, Irish immigrants faced significant discrimination in the United States. One of the major ways this discrimination made itself clear was through job postings, both in newspapers and in shop windows, that read "No Irish Need Apply." The signs were blatantly discriminatory and surfaced numerous times during the mid-19th century.
In 2002, history professor Richard J. Jensen decided these signs were few and far between and may not have existed at all. Jensen published an academic paper that stirred controversy among the Irish-American community who felt that their long and deep memory of prejudice and discrimination was invalidated by Jensen's accusations that Irish persecution is a myth. Jensen's theory prevailed for more than a decade until another academic paper was published by 14-year-old Rebecca Fried in 2015 that delineated why Jensen's paper was wrong. She found proof of the "No Irish Need Apply," or NINA, signs with only a few minutes of Googling.
Fried Published An Article In The Oxford Journal Of Social History
After Rebecca Fried collected sufficient data, she and her father brought her research to Kerby Miller, and the three decided Rebecca should publish a scholarly article detailing her findings. Miller talked Rebecca and her father through how a scholarly article should read, but he insisted that Rebecca was responsible for the majority of the wording. He said, "She didn't need any help from me on what she did. I’d be surprised if she changed a single word."
Miller gave full credit to Rebecca and her father on the article, which is titled "No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs," which was published in the Oxford Journal of Social History. Rebecca was still in eighth grade at the time.
Jensen Tried To Undermine Rebecca Fried's ArticlePhoto: Boston Sign Company / Amazon
Rebecca's article caused a notable stir in the Irish community, and it was covered in the newspaper Irish Central. In the comments section of the article, Rebecca found herself going head to head with none other than Richard Jensen himself.
When Jensen saw the report of Rebecca's article on Irish Central, he congratulated her on her well-written piece and then went on to dismiss it by saying that "she did not claim to find a single window sign anywhere in the USA." The problem is that Rebecca did find proof of window signs in the United States, and she took to the comments section to tell Jensen.
Jensen went on to say that her findings were extremely rare, to which Rebecca replied that rarity still indicates existence. They went back and forth briefly, and Rebecca was as respectful as possible while dismissing Jensen's retorts.
Jensen Replied That Kerby Miller's Response Was Typical Of An Irish Catholic, Which Miller Is Not
Rebecca Fried was not the first person with whom Richard J. Jensen argued over the existence of the NINA signs. When Jensen first published his controversial article in 2002, he was met with contestation from history professor Kerby Miller, the same scholar who advised Rebecca Fried on her article disputing Jensen's.
When confronted by Miller, however, Jensen was less polite than he was to Fried. Miller was suspicious of how Jensen's article seemed to fit too well into a political and ideological agenda. Miller said that Jensen's response was to be expected from an Irish-American Catholic. The issue with this accusation, besides it playing into the same discrimination Jensen argued never existed, was that Miller was neither Irish American nor Catholic.
Miller was met with similar responses in New Zealand when he went to present his work on the historical validity of NINA signs. He was badgered about why he didn't believe Jensen and was continually asked who in his family was Irish Catholic. When Miller revealed that his wife was Irish Catholic, those on Jensen's side claimed that Miller only opposed the article because of his underlying personal biases. Interestingly, no one accused Jensen of the same.
Jensen's Argument Persisted For Years Because Many Believed It At Face Value Without Contesting It
Although an eight grader was able to debunk Richard J. Jensen's theory in a matter of hours, for more than a decade, many scholars and historians believed the claim that NINA signs didn't exist and that Irish Americans' collective memory was simply based on a song. Although some scholars disagreed with Jensen, they did little to contest the article. According to historian Kerby Miller, Miller knew a few of his academic peers didn't agree with Jensen, and he tried to convince them to argue their positions, but they were either too busy or simply didn't want to take the time to refute Jensen.
Part of the issue in debunking Jensen's theory was that the databases Jensen used were not complete. Rebecca Fried circumvented this problem by taking to Google rather than using a specific, limited database, such as The Library of Congress, to find proof of NINA signs.