Kevin Kenny

Portrait of Kevin Kenny
Image Credit: Jorge Corona

Kevin Kenny is Glucksman Professor of History at New York University, where he specializes in American immigration, race, and labor in the nineteenth century. He came to New York City as an immigrant in the 1980s and completed his PhD in U.S. history at Columbia in 1994. He taught at the University of Texas at Austin and at Boston College before taking up his current position at NYU. His first book, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (1998), examines how traditions of Irish rural protest were transplanted into industrial America. The American Irish: A History (2000), the standard work on its topic, offers a broad interpretive survey of the field. Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Peaceable Kingdom (2009) examines relations between Native Americans and European colonists in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (2013) explores the origins, meaning, and utility of a central concept in the study of migration, with particular reference to Jewish, African, Irish, and Asian history. Kenny has also published articles on U.S. immigration in the Journal of American History, the Journal of American Ethnic History, and other venues. He is currently finishing a book about how slavery shaped American immigration policy in the nineteenth century.  Kenny is President of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (2021-24).

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Twenty Irish immigrants, suspected of belonging to a secret terrorist organization called the Molly Maguires, were hanged in Pennsylvania in the 1870s for the murder of sixteen men. Ever since, there has been enormous disagreement over who the Molly Maguires were, what they did, and why they did it. This lecture offers a new interpretation of the Molly Maguires, their transatlantic origins, and their actions and motivation.
The existence, abolition, and legacies of slavery, more than any other force, shaped American immigration policy as it moved from the local to the national level over the course of the nineteenth century. Before the Civil War, the federal government played only a very limited role in immigration. The states controlled mobility within and across their borders and set their own rules for community membership. Defenders of slavery feared that if Congress gained control over immigration, it could also regulate the movement of free black people and the interstate slave trade. The Civil War and the abolition of slavery removed the political and constitutional obstacles to a national immigration policy, which was first directed at Chinese immigrants, using techniques of registration, punishment, and deportation first deployed against free black people in the antebellum South.
What does diaspora mean? Until quite recently, the word had a specific and restricted meaning, referring principally to the dispersal and exile of the Jews. Since the mid-twentieth century, the term diaspora has proliferated to the point where it is applied to migrants of almost every kind. This lecture explains where the concept of diaspora came from, how its meaning changed over time, why its usage has expanded so dramatically in recent years, and how it can both clarify and distort the nature of migration. Drawing on examples from Jewish, Irish, African, and Asian history, Kenny approaches diaspora as idea with three key elements — relocation, connectivity, and return — that migrants, scholars, journalists, and governments use to make sense of the world migration creates.
William Penn established Pennsylvania in 1682 as a “holy experiment” in which he believed European colonists and Native Americans could live together in harmony. This lecture explains how Penn’s vision of a Peaceable Kingdom gradually disintegrated in the eighteenth century, with disastrous consequences for Native Americans. The focal point is the Paxton Boys’ notorious attack on the Conestoga Indians in 1763 and their march on Philadelphia the following year.