I originally planned on writing more about my Randalls, but I was moved to write the following, while it was still fresh in my mind!
This past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my second cousin and I made a trip to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis island. We were hoping to learn more about our common great-grandparents, whether specifically or experientially.
Though it was mid-January, we were fortunate that the weather was sunny and somewhat mild. We had pre-purchased our ferry tickets, so all we had to do was go through security and get on board. It was a really quick trip to both places – you can see your destinations easily from the dock – so we were soon at Liberty Island.
Since we hadn’t bought tickets to tour inside the statue, we just walked the perimeter of the island itself. With the sunny skies, it was worth it! The statue was beautiful, especially with the sunlight shining on her face.
We boarded the next ferry for Ellis Island, which was just a few minutes up the harbor. We had a quick lunch at the cafeteria (which probably had way better food than our ancestors experienced!) and were ready to explore. There was a research room, which we contemplated visiting, but I said, let’s look at the exhibits first. (More about the research room later.)
Exploring Ellis Island
Let me say that you would never know that there was any previous storm damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. So although many items are in storage and/or are being restored, still there are many exhibits in the main building (listed here), and we didn’t even see all of them. Basically, the exhibits covered different eras of immigration throughout American history, not just immigration through Ellis Island. There are audio components: one through listening to headsets at various stations, and others that activated by either standing near the audio station or by picking up a landline-style phone. Since I’m more of a visual person, I did more reading than listening; my cousin went for the complete experience!
I was really impressed by the breadth of what the exhibits covered. We went to the pre-Ellis Island immigration exhibit first. This covered everything from early European immigration to existing Native populations to the slave trade. And it wasn’t just your standard schoolbook Anglo-only immigration, but that of other countries as well (Sweden, Denmark and the West Indies, for example) and immigration into different parts of what would be the United States (like the Southwest, Alaska and Hawaii).
The biggest exhibit was for the Ellis Island era. Not only did it cover Ellis Island, but other ports of entry as well (like San Francisco). There were photographs, film clips and other media of the immigrants in their homeland, during their trips and what happened to them upon arrival in the US. One room was filled with “treasures from home”, which was ephemera from different family collections. This also included some family papers (not mine, though)! My cousin and I pondered what the immigrants must have thought of the panorama of different peoples and cultures that suddenly surrounded them.
There were also various rooms where immigrants were processed, medically examined or slept for the night. The most famous, which you often see in photographs, is the Registration Room, which is a large hall on the second floor. As I stood there, I thought of my other great-grandfather who arrived in 1907 (after the current building was built in 1900). I imagined him standing in line, perhaps talking to his brother. I wondered if he, like I was just then, looked at the sunshine streaming through the large windows.
Probably the most powerful impression, however, was present throughout most of the exhibits: the pro-immigrant vs. anti-immigrant sentiments. On the one hand, some Americans were proud of the fact that the country welcomed and provided opportunity to people from all over the world. On the other hand, some felt intruded upon and threatened by the arrival of so many strangers. It didn’t seem to matter at what point in history it was; both attitudes prevailed. I remarked to my cousin that things really haven’t changed over the years, have they?
As we rested our weary feet for a while, we talked one of the earlier exhibits about immigrant influences on music, particularly the banjo from Africa and how it made its way into blackface minstrel shows (which my great-great uncle Albert Pleau took part in). My cousin wondered why such a thing would be so popular. One of the things we came up with was that perhaps people who had been there for a while felt “smarter” and found it funny when they saw others were not so “smart” as themselves. Perhaps categorizing others as “dumber” gave one group a feeling of superiority. My cousin grew up in an area that had many French-Canadians, and the other citizens kind of looked down on them as well. This sentiment was (and is) prevalent all over the country with many different ethnic groups.
The Research Room
Because the museum was so big and there was so much to see, we never got the research room. There were signs there that stated a half-hour consultation was $7 (I didn’t know there were consultations!), and I like to get the biggest bang for my buck, so I felt I needed to be better prepared to use this service most effectively. Later on, I tried finding out more information online about this service, and I found nothing. What I really want to do is write to them for an explanation of their offerings and what to expect from a visit there, so I intend to email them for just that. I will be sure to write up their answer for all our benefit!
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All in all, if you want to research any immigrant experience, regardless of time and place, Ellis Island is the place to go. You can opt to skip the Statue of Liberty, but it is right there anyway and it is something so many of our ancestors saw upon their arrival, so I say: go!