Where Everyman is Hero
By Karen Rubin
Arriving at Ellis Island after exploring the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, you can easily imagine what it was like for the throngs of people who came in such waves that it collectively formed the largest migration in human history.
Between 1892 when Ellis Island became an immigration center and 1924 when it ceased, some 12 million people passed through, the greatest tide of incoming humanity in the nation’s history. There are 100 million Americans today – about 30 percent of the population – whose ancestors made the journey through these portals.
They would have had that first sight of the Statue of Liberty, that welcoming beacon of hope and freedom, before arriving. Today, you would have likely explored Liberty Island before getting back on the ferry for Ellis Island.
But then, as now, you get off the ferry en masse, walk up the steps into a great hall, the sounds magnified from the tile. You stand confused among the hubbub of people and noise, not knowing where to go first, what to do first. There are people from everywhere – and until you get your bearings, you get that glimmer of what it was like.
But of course it is different. You are not carrying all everything you own in your hands, not in terror over being sent back to whatever compelled you to leave your native land to begin with. Not being panicked at the possibility of being separated from the rest of your family. Not straining to make sense out of a new language, new customs. Not having endured weeks in cramped quarters rolling on the high seas before being dropped at a pier and loaded onto the ferry to come to Ellis Island, the immigration center for New York.
The confusion, now, is mostly what to do first, where to go first. (I have the added realism of being a little tuckered out from having climbed to Lady Liberty’s crown, an experience now available to a lucky 240 people a day; see Discovery, 6/12).
The first people I see are dressed in early 20th century clothes (how odd that sounds now, in the ‘oughts’ of the new millennium), hawking tickets for a new live-stage performance (amazingly not a first for Ellis Island the immigration center).
Taking a Chance on America: Bela Lugosi’s Ellis Island Story, which was brought back by demand at the Museum’s intimate Living Theater for a limited run ending September 5), written by playwright and screenwriter Aurorae Khoo, portrays the immigrant experience of legendary movie actor Bela Lugosi-best known for his portrayal of Count Dracula-and features a reenactment of the Ellis Island inspection process.
Bela Lagosi came in 1920 from Hungary. He actually first snuck in at New Orleans and lived in America illegally for a time. But he wanted to be “legitimate,” so he went to Ellis Island.
It strikes me during the course of my visit, that except for Bela Lugosi, there is hardly any “name-dropping.” I imagine that instead of an American flag which turns into faces of immigrants today, there could be a whole hall of people who became famous or important who can trace their arrival here – people who literally were self-made successes because only those traveling third class or steerage (the vast majority) had to go through the immigration process at Ellis Island (first and second class passengers were interviewed onboard the ship and then disembarked at the New York City pier). Ellis Island is more of a people’s museum, the museum of the common man, Everyman. Out of many, one.
How they came to be, what that experience would be like – these halls veritably echo with the stories. You feel chills to picture your own forebears – not so far removed for most – grandparents or great-grandparents. It is not someone else’s story. It is your own personal story, and the halls and the presentation let you easily put your own family’s portrait into the scene.
Ellis Island, which only became a museum in 1990, is a shrine to their courage and their ordeal and all the things that drove people to leave all that they knew behind to start life anew in a completely new and strange land. Some came by themselves – there were even women who were literally mail-order brides who met their prospective grooms for the first time on Ellis Island.
It is a homage to America, as well – who we are and how we came to be. It is the best example of what we profess to be, “The Land of Opportunity.”
Ellis Island Immigration Museum articulates these experiences, these emotions very clearly. There is a very human feel to everything – sensitive, as it turns out, most of the officials that the immigrants encountered. It was frightening and wondrous and wonderful all at the same time.
I am impressed by how respectful, and I believe honest, the depictions are – not necessarily the story we would wish to remember or the story that is politically advantageous or politically correct to remember.
And what is so fascinating is how contemporary it all feels. The issues and concerns resonate today, even though the fashions may have changed.
And so you enter at what you come to learn is the “baggage room” and imagine the dilemma of leaving all that you own with a stranger in exchange for a receipt or else lugging everything upstairs and possibly being rejected as being feeble. Pass through the baggage area to a large room, “Peopling of America,” where “street markers” post the inflow and outflow of arrivals and departures.
In just an eight-year period, between 1900 and1908, some 8.2 million – a veritable tsunami of people – entered the United States, with some 3.0 million flowing out.
In those early years, with the Industrial Revolution transforming America’s economic, social and political landscape, the hordes were welcomed to man the factories and build the railroads, roads and edifices of a booming society.
But the climate changed, from welcoming to forbidding, as Americans feared their culture (whatever that was) would be overwhelmed, and even new Americans, fearing competition for their jobs, wanted to close off the avenues to opportunity they themselves enjoyed.
Some of the programs require a timed ticket, even if there is no charge. And so the first thing I do is get a ticket for the next showing of a fabulously produced documentary, “Island of Hope, Island of Tears,” made by Charles Guggenheim and narrated by Gene Hackman.
The film starts off where the immigrants themselves started off – the rural villages and teaming cities a world away from America. You follow them with their carts on dirt roads crammed with possessions, then onto the trains as the whistle sounds and the traincars rattle, into the port city – Bremer, Antwerp, Hamburg and Liverpool – to be “processed” by the steamship company.
Those images provide the missing link, I think, in what we know of the story before. It is that heart-wrenching scene that ends “Fiddler on the Roof,” as you see the families leaving the only homes they have known for generations. More typically, the story about Ellis Island starts with that first profoundly moving sight of the Statue of Liberty holding the torch of freedom, and then the process of going through Ellis Island.
But the movie shows what happens before all of that, which puts what happens at Ellis Island into context.
The vast majority of immigrants to America came in third class and steerage – a ship might have carried 50 passengers first class but 1,000 in steerage. And for the steamship company, “it was a business of numbers – to house, feed, process 40,000.”
At first, the steamship lines would simply load up immigrants, but after 8 percent of the arrivals into Ellis Island were being sent back for failing to meet the minimal criteria at a phenomenal expense to those who had already spent their life savings, Teddy Roosevelt’s administration made the steamship company responsible to bring them back at its expense.
At that point, the steamship lines became more diligent about identifying those who would not pass muster, de-lousing people and cutting off their hair, and cutting the rejection rate to 2%.
While we might have the idea that Ellis Island officials were dispassionate, actually, the immigrants were at the mercy of steamship company.
The voices of the immigrants, recounting their experience during this film and throughout the museum, are poignant and powerful: they describe being stuffed in steerage like animals, where they could see water but not sky, where they were sickened by odor of spoiled food and oil. “We had one bag, one basket, no other possessions.”
The voyage might have taken three or four weeks. The ship would have pulled into a pier on New York City, but only the first and second class passengers – who would have paid $150 for their passage (probably two-year’s wages for those who traveled in third class or steerage), would have disembarked, having been interviewed by Immigration officials onboard.
The rest, by the hundreds, would be loaded onto ferries and taken the short distance, as we did that morning, to Ellis Island. They might have had to wait hours or even days, before they finally were deposited at the Immigration Center there.
From the film, I peer into some of the exhibits myself before latching on to one of the free, 45-minute Park Ranger-guided tours, offered on the hour. The tour is a fabulous way to put everything into context.
From almost the first moment they were dislodged from the ferries, they were watched by doctors and inspectors for further scrutiny as to those who might have physical or mental defects, or who might become a public liability, an agitator or an anarchist, or who might have come as a contracted worker, stealing a job or undercutting the wage from an American.
A doctor would use a sterilized button hook to lift the eyelid to look for one of the most dreaded diseases, trachoma, that could cause blindness, which would have resulted in deportation.
If they passed that initial test, they were sent up to the second floor Registry Room, a cavernous tiled hall with big windows from which sunlight would stream in, where the sounds of the vast multitudes would resound. If you would have come in 1920, this Great Hall would have been filled with as many as 2,000 people speaking 51 languages.
As they made their way up the stairs, doctors would watch (the so-called “six-second checkup”), doctors would be positioned to watch to see who seemed short of breath, who limped, who seemed confused or disoriented, would be marked on their shoulder in chalk for further scrutiny: an “H” for respiratory, an “B” for back problem; “P” for physical limitation like a limp, an “X” for possible mental defect and a circled “X” for definite mental defect and sent for an IQ test (put together a puzzle of ship, horse).
I can imagine the terror for people who had risked everything, given up everything, and did not have the option of returning, being confronted by officials, wearing uniforms they had learned to fear.
And I can imagine the terror of a family that might have been separated if one had to be sent to the hospital on the island. In one of the exhibit rooms, I read about a two-year old boy who was sick and taken into the hospital on Ellis Island and the family lived in the dormitory for six weeks, able to visit him only five minutes a week, and then he died there.
You can sit on the few remaining wooden benches where immigrants would have sat until their name was called from the ship’s manifest by the official standing behind a wooden podium. Park Ranger Jesse Ponz holds up a ship’s manifest, about eight columns of information. What can be learned from these notes, I wonder? Apparently, quite a lot.
(You can make an appointment to examine the ship’s manifest of your own family member at the American Family Immigration History Center. It is like a library room, with computer stations. I resolve to come back and do that.)
“Are you a communist or anarchist? Did you come with pre-arranged contract to work?” the inspectors would ask. If you answered yes, you would be deported. If you were under-aged you would be deported, or if you did not have $25, you could be deported (in 1909, it was a requirement, but later it became a “rule of thumb.”)
We see the Stairs of Separation – where a lot of families were broken up – and the “Kissing Post” downstairs, where many were reunited.
I think of the families named “Goodman,” whose ancestor might well have told the Inspector, “I’m a good man, please let me in,” and the families who wound up in Houston, Texas, instead of Houston Street, Manhattan, or who wanted to go to Springfield and were sent to any one of the dozens of Springfields throughout the nation when they bought their train ticket at the depot.
For the vast majority, the process lasted some three to five hours – pretty remarkable considering the numbers – some had to endure much longer, if they had to go into the hospital, or wait for a family member to come for them, or challenge a deportation order in the courtroom in the same lofty building.
For most who arrived, Ellis Island’s buildings were not harsh at all – in fact, they were among the most splendid, grand structures of their time.
There was a dining hall, which served with china and silverware, to accommodate 2,000 people at a time.
Rather than sending sick or weak people away, almost every ailment was treated in state-of-the-art hospital facilities on Ellis Island, at nominal cost (likely paid for by one of the various ethnic benevolent groups).
I am amazed to learn that for those who had to be quarantined on the island until they could be admitted, they would bring musical entertainment.
Those who were designated for deportation even had the right to appeal at a court within the same building (an issue that resonates in today’s news). Out of 12 million who were admitted through Ellis Island, 240,000 were rejected.
Indeed, for most of the time that Ellis Island functioned, America welcomed its immigrants.
Peopling of America
The “Peopling of America” exhibit on the main floor, notes that since 1600, some 60 million people have come to America, producing “a multi-ethic population unparalleled in the world”. In that same hall is a sculpture of sorts in which an American flag changes into the faces of immigrants, as you shift your angle.
You appreciate how Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are reflective of the changing economic, social and political landscape of the nation, as you wander through the various exhibit rooms.
In the mid-1800s, the Irish Potato Famine saw a wave of immigrants settling in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, as well as Canada and Australia/New Zealand, putting pressure on facilities. The anything-goes attitude toward immigrants changed, and for the first time, the federal government started restricting immigration. Castle Clinton, in 1855, became the first immigration depot in the world – a step up from the chaos that had existed.
Between 1855 and 1892, when the federal government imposed order, immigrants were abused and taken advantage of. Ellis Island was created in 1892 to cut down on abuse.
All of the nation’s major ports have a similar immigration center, but three out of four immigrants who came by steamship came to Ellis Island.
People came from everywhere, but the vast majority who came through Ellis Island came from southern Italy and Eastern Europe.
The first person to come through Ellis Island in 1892 was 15-year old Annie Moore from County Cork. 12 million followed after her, the biggest migration in history.
In the decade after the American Revolution, about 5,000 people a year emigrated; by the early 1900s, that many people arrived at Ellis Island each day, with a peak of 11,747 on April 17, 1907.
From the earliest time, there were the competing interests: bringing in low-cost labor to build the infrastructure of an industrializing nation, its canals, railroads, roadways and buildings against the push to protect jobs and wages and the fear that “American” culture would be changed.
When Italian Catholics, Russian Jews, Eastern Orthodox came in after World War I, anti-immigration sentiment won out; quotas were imposed, Ellis Island was closed and processing immigrants was done overseas, instead.
Through America’s Gate
“Through America’s Gate” exhibit lets you roam through the various rooms the immigrants would have, with wonderful exhibits that personalize the experience. There is the graffiti that was etched during periods of boredom.
One room describes the experience of 231 “Picture Brides” – literally mail-order brides. One ship carried more than 50 of these women whose prospective grooms would have come to Ellis Island to meet them. “Occasionally,” a panel reads, the woman might have exercised her woman’s prerogative and changed her mind – in one instance, a woman fell in love with a man on the ship. When the women arrived, they were under the protection of one of the benevolent agencies; they would meet their groom and decide whether they would be married. The ceremony took place on Ellis Island.
A fascinating newspaper article described the overnight transformation of a woman and her daughter, from the traditional clothes of a rural European village, to the fashion of the new, young nation.
“Peak Immigration Years” exhibit rooms further personalize the immigrant experience, but do much more. They tell more about the before and the after.
There is the display that documents the pograms in Eastern Europe – 1,200 of them just between 1918 and 1919, that propelled one-third of Eastern European Jews to emigrate to other lands, over 90 percent of them to the U.S. Philip Comen, an immigration officer at the time, researched the pogroms in Russia and listed how many were injured, killed, and the value of property destroyed. “Over five million people were made to realize that their birthplace was not their home.”
There is a room devoted to the steamship lines – fabulous posters, steamship tickets, manifests, postcards, passports and visas, notes written and personal possessions.
“By 1910, 75% of residents of New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Boston were immigrants or children of immigrants.”
Another room depicts how immigrants brought and retained their own culture – music of immigrant communities plays – there are photos of social clubs and parades.
And then there is the pressure, subtle and not so subtle, to become Americanized.
Jacob A. Riis coined the expression “Go Betweens” to describe immigrant children who walked that fine line between opposing cultures – parents who were bastions of ethnic traditions versus new friends and the public school teachers who frowned on foreign ways. They had the role of shuttling back and forth between those worlds, carrying messages from doctors, landlords, and shopkeepers for their parents. They are portrayed in photos by Lewis W. Hine, sociologist and photographer.
Another room greets you with massive sign, “Be Loyal” showing the increasingly aggressive effort by government and institutions to Americanize immigrants, possibly to counter the growing alarm among native Americans that the vast melting pot of the 1910s would overwhelm American culture.
There are photos, news clippings and artifacts showing the political forces – like Meyer London, the first Jewish Socialist elected to Congress.
At this point, the whole tenor of the exhibit changes. Immigration which had been welcomed is now increasingly reviled.
And those who would press for better wages and working and living conditions were being accused of being anarchists and agitators.
An exhibit displays New York Times banner headlines, “500 Reds at Ellis Island,” – the result of the Palmer raids which were a precursor to the McCarthy era. Another headline, “Habeas Corpus Writ Halts Deportation: Emma Goldman and Alexander Beckman, the intellectuals of agitation …of the radical movement.”
Finally, a 1924 New York Times headline, “America of the Melting Pot Comes to End.”
An exhibit “Treasures from Home” on the third floor displays more than 2,000 possessions that immigrants brought from their homelands like a teddy bear form a Swiss immigrant Gertrude Schneider Smith.
Wall of Honor
I go out to where there is the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. To help raise the funds for the rescue (literally) and refurbishment of Ellis Island, which had been abandoned and deteriorating for 30 years, Lee Iacocca, the head of the foundation, raised money (in the same tradition as Joseph Pulitzer raised money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty) by letting people honor their relatives who went through Ellis Island by etching their names in plaques.
I find the names of my grandparents, grandaunt and granduncle fairly easily – they are in alphabetical order – but I wonder if they renew it as they add to the list. I am later told that they add the names out of order, making it more difficult to find them. I wish they would have included the year they entered the country of it were known, that would have been a lot more meaningful and personal.
The number that is already there makes a long sweeping wall of silver. It is the backdrop to where archeological excavation exposed the foundation of the original fort, Fort Gibson, that was on the island, and where the island would have ended.
Ellis Island dates back to Indian times. The explorer Verrazano, in 1524 became the first European to come to New York Harbor, noting in his logbook that “semi nomadic” people pulled up in canoes. It was more than 100 years later before the Dutch came. Where Staten Island ferry lands at the tip of Manhattan is where the Dutch set up their trading post. By the 1640s, when the Dutch bought the island, there were 18 languages spoken, including Spanish, Portuguese, Frisian.
In the 1700s, the 3.5-acre island was owned by Sam Ellis, who built a tavern on the island (which was known as a “party” spot at the time). But after the U.S. Revolution, and anticipating war with the British, the federal government purchased the island in 1790 for a few thousand dollars to use as a defense. The island was expanded to 27 1/2 acres with landfill – much of it from the construction of New York City subway. (A fight between New York State and New Jersey over who actually owned Ellis Island was settled by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that New York owns the original 3 1/2 acres but the rest is in New Jersey.)
Most major port cities in the U.S. had an immigration center; up until 1892, when Ellis Island opened, the task was undertaken by the states, themselves (Castle Clinton, on Battery Park where the Liberty Island experience starts, was New York State’s center) but with the wave of immigration increasing, the federal government took over.
The views from Ellis Island, which has a park-like setting and the most magnificent of buildings – are stunning. You have a wonderful view of Manhattan’s skyline in one direction, and the Statue of Liberty in the other.
From this vantage point, you can also appreciate the building’s architecture – not at all institutional as you might expect of a federal immigration processing center. In fact, for most of the immigrants, it was the grandest building they had ever seen – a crystal palace.
That’s what is most impressive. It isn’t institutional, and I expect that even though there were thousands of people being processed, – by definition it had to be bureaucratic and factory-like – it was as humane as possible. You get that feeling from the photos of the staff, and the images of the people.
The ferry building is the first of 30 of the other buildings on the island that have been restored and open for tours. I sign up for a 2:30 tour and continue my own exploration.
The ferry building tour proves to be a more intensive understanding of the hospital facilities offered here; indeed, the ferry building is the first of 30 buildings that the Park Service would like to restore.
But in 1900 to 1920, the Ellis Island hospital was the biggest, best medical complex in the world – this was the first hospital where a stethoscope was standard issue. Just about every ailment could be treated here. In fact, only 60,000 people were sent back because of diseases that could not be treated.
The medical people had learned by the 1880s how diseases like small pox, cholera, were spread. And they knew to quarantine to prevent epidemic.
The doctors told the architects to create environment where thousands could be processed in a day, and in fact, they developed a system that accommodated up to 5,000 people a day.
It is mind-boggling to contemplate that 10 percent of the 12 million who came through Ellis Island – 1.2 million – were treated in the 700-bed hospital. There were 353 babies born here.
There is a panel in this building that puts into perspective the pressure on the medical people: “It wasn’t unusual to have 100 cases at the hospital in one day. The task of admitting, examining, treating this number in 5-6 hours would tax even the largest hospital, but it is further complicated by the fact practically none spoke English.”
After Ellis Island was shut down as an immigration processing center in 1924, it took on new roles – as a deportation center in 1928 from which accused anarchists rounded up in the Palmer raids were thrown out, and in housing Prisoners of War in World War II. It was finally and summarily closed in 1954 – the buildings just locked up with everything still inside, a ferry left to sink at the dock (it is still there). It was left to deteriorate until President Lyndon B. Johnson, recognized the essential unity of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, placed it under the care of the National Park Service in 1965. But it wasn’t until after Lee Iacocca’s massive fund-raising effort, raising $160 million, that Ellis Island was restored to its appearance in 1918-1924, and reopened as a national museum in 1990.
I can only imagine the thrill for the relative few immigrants each year who take the oath of citizenship here.
You need at least three hours to visit Ellis Island. And it is appropriate that you will likely come after having visited the Statue of Liberty, so you will be a little tired and better appreciate what the immigrants would have felt.
There is a charming caf�, with outdoor tables (a priceless view) and indoor seating and a lovely selection of items at moderate prices.
What resonates most clearly though, is how timely this place and the story it tells is. We have all been here before. I ask the Park Ranger taking us around, as he finishes the 45-minute guided tour to reflect on today’s immigration policy debate. How much the same, how much different? Have we all been here before? Does he have any thoughts about what the policy should be?
“There is a lot in common,” he says. “The immigration issue has never been solved. It is impossible to tell who comes over the border what kind of citizens they will become. People are coming in at the rate of 850,000 a year, but if we let in all who would come, that number would be 3-4 million. It is a major problem, a dilemma. We want a viable working population.”
I go outside and wait on line for the ferry back to Castle Clinton at Battery Park.
Ellis Island is open daily (except Dec. 25);visiting is free though you have to pay $12/Adult, $10/Seniors and $5/child for the ferry; tickets can be booked in advance, Statue Cruises, 877- LADY-TIX (877-523-9849),www.statuecruises.com. For Ellis Island information, 212-363-3200 or www.nps.gov/elis/index.htm.
NYC’S MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN
But my experience is still not complete.
It has been a long day that started, like it did for the immigrants, with a ferry ride. Seeing the two – the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island – in one day is exhausting, but brings you to an exquisite place.
I am exhausted but reinvigorated by the brief ferry ride back, and I venture across the street from Battery Park, to the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, one of the Smithsonian museums. And it is most appropriate to complete my journey of the immigrant experience with an enhanced understanding of the only non-immigrant Americans.
The museum is housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs Building – a stunning architectural jewel, with an elliptical rotunda that is decorated with paintings depicting American commerce. Those paintings tie in the themes of the day in a way that was unintended, I am sure, but poignant.
Off from the rotunda are the exhibit rooms. Currently on display is “Identity by Design: Tradition, Change and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses” (on view through fall 2009).
The exhibit is an intriguing counterpoint to the Ellis Island story: the dresses are from the late 1800s, when immigration began to build because of the Industrial Revolution and the need for labor.
The Indians adapted imported materials from Europe, cloth, glass beads, silk ribbons that became available.
The dresses represent cultural identity, materials, techniques and their connection to past. For the makers, they represented a spiritual experience.
They were produced in confinement on reservations and reserves – done in sacred ceremonies that were banned by American and Canadian government.
In place of their traditional celebrations, tribes held huge celebrations over July 4 and other patriotic and Christian holidays, for which the women made elaborate dresses, turning enforced idleness of confinement to advantage by using time and experience with new styles and designs such as squared sleeves and beadwork of American flags.
“People would do anything to keep religion going under the nose of government – and conduct ceremonies under the guise of acceptable functions.”
“My mom taught me that a lot of the dresses were reflections of what the people saw, and what they had going on in their lives at the time,” wrote Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, Assiniboine/Sioux, wrote in 2005.
(Free admission; open daily except Dec. 25, until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. National Museum of the American Indian, One Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004, 212-514-3700, www.AmericanIndian.si.edu.)
LADY LIBERTY REOPENS HER CROWN
Thursday, 16 July, 2009
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