Gateway to Liberty

Jeremy Taylor on Ellis Island, the place where the American experience began for so many thousands of people

  • Photograph by Darren McGee
  • Photograph by Darren McGee

It’s the Statue of Liberty that everyone thinks of first, rearing out of New York harbour, a sightless grey-green apparition flourishing its torch. A bit of a monstrosity if you look at it carefully, and not as big as it seems in photographs and movies. But this is where most people get off the Circle Line ferry from Battery Park, to troop around Liberty Island, climb inside Liberty herself. This is the great symbol of American promise. Hope for the huddled masses.

Behind Liberty’s back, and rather to one side, is a more mundane reality. The boats stop here too, and everyone dutifully disembarks to inspect “one of this country’s most historic sites”. Ellis Island. For many Americans — four out of every ten — this is where it all started. This is where their grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents first set foot in America, not knowing — after long and often desperate journeys — whether they would be allowed to land, whether the Liberty dream was going to blossom or wither. This is where decisions were made that would affect the lives of millions of Americans and their descendants. 40% of today’s US population.

 

Today, there’s a very handsome museum on Ellis Island. More than 30 galleries record what the immigrants went through, and there are audio guided tours in four languages, video presentations, a movie theatre (Island of Hope, Island of Tears), a learning centre, four centuries of immigration recorded in a big display on The Peopling of America. Records where you can look up the names of ancestors who might have landed here, photographs of Ellis Island over the years, an oral history collection.

One display lists the many words in modern American usage that were introduced by immigrants (or by the original Americans, who seem to be counted as immigrants). Banjo from Angola’s Kimbundu, hunky-dory and Yankee from the Dutch, barbecue and hammock from the Taino, honcho from Japan, hoodlum from Germany, jazz and jukebox from West Africa, klutz from Yiddish, mezzanine from Italy, macho from Mexico, levee from France, mustang from Spanish. So much of America defined by its adoptees. 200,000 square feet where you can “bring the immigrant experience to life”.

The place is full of ghosts. They linger everywhere. The first thing you see is a display of “artefacts” in what was once the Baggage Room. Battered trunks and suitcases, shoes, spectacles, baskets, a hat-box. The first challenge was to be parted from your baggage. Photographs record the miserable line of nervous newcomers snaking its way upstairs to the medical and legal inspections. Uniformed guards check each face for signs of illness, instability, undesirability. A chalkmark scrawled on your coat if there was any suspicion. This way please. Upstairs is the vast echoing hall where arrivals were interrogated and cleared for entry into the United States and a new life — or were denied and set apart for the next boat home. The benches for waiting. The tall desks for the questions. Each newcomer’s destiny in the hands of a suspicious immigration man.

For a while, 5,000 people a day passed through this hall.

Only the poor, though. First and second class passengers on the incoming boats were cleared at sea as they approached New York harbour. It was the others — the steerage passengers — who were decanted onto Ellis Island for “processing”. Most were men, turning their backs on Europe and hoping to send for wives and children once they had found a foothold in America. From Italy and Ireland, Germany and France, Holland and Spain, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, but also from the Middle East and Asia. Dreaming of an alternative to war, stagnation, starvation, poverty, persecution, turmoil.

And of course from every corner of the Caribbean.

 

Between 1892 and 1954, when the processing station closed, 12 million people passed through Ellis Island. Only two per cent were turned away. A mere quarter million.

Ellis Island was America’s response to the biggest wave of hopeful arrivals the continent had ever seen. Originally an islet of only three acres, it was expanded to 27.5 acres over the years, and even then could barely handle the influx. By 1924, the US government had had enough; it introduced immigration quotas, and the tide fell swiftly. In time, Ellis became a detention and deportation centre for undesirable aliens. Then a hospital for wounded servicemen during the 1939-45 war, as it had been in 1914-18. Then a US Coast Guard training centre.

After it was finally closed in November 1954, it was left to rot. One of the Museum galleries shows abandoned and derelict buildings littered with the debris of desperate lives. President Lyndon B. Johnson salvaged it in 1965 as a heritage site; in time a museum was developed, and the whole project was upgraded and prettified to mark the centenary of the opening of the immigration facility in 1992. Now it is run by the National Park Service, “one of our most heavily visited monuments”.

It’s one of the cheapest trips in New York (not counting the Staten Island ferry), with a boat ride across the harbour and a stop at the Statue of Liberty thrown in. It carries a special resonance for the many Caribbean families whose relatives in the United States became American because an earlier generation braved the trip to New York and the rigours of Ellis Island.

And it’s a more thoughtful and adventurous outing than another trip to Bloomingdales, Madison Square Garden.