New York City. 1863. The Civil War raged on. An extraordinary thing occurred amid the dangerous streets and crumbling tenement houses of the Five Points, the notorious 19th-century Lower Manhattan slum. Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine settled alongside free-born Black Americans and those who escaped slavery, arriving by means of the Underground Railroad. The Irish, relegated at that time to the lowest rung of America’s social status, received a sympathetic welcome from their Black neighbors (who enjoyed only slightly better treatment in the burgeoning industrial-era city). The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures in this unlikeliest of neighborhoods.
The amalgamation between the communities took its most exuberant form with raucous dance contests on the floors of the neighborhood bars and dance halls. It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba.
But this racial equilibrium would come to a sharp and brutal end when President Lincoln’s need to institute the first Federal Draft to support the Union Army would incite the deadly NY Draft Riots of July 1863.
Within this galvanizing story of racial harmony undone by a country at war with itself, we meet the denizens of a local saloon called Paradise Square: the indomitable Black woman who owns it; her Irish-Catholic sister-in-law and her Black minister husband; a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant; a fearless freedom seeker; an anti-abolitionist political boss, and a penniless songwriter trying to capture it all. They have conflicting notions of what it means to be an American while living through one of the most tumultuous eras in our country’s history.