I first went to Ellis Island in New York in 1980. This was my first time in America – United States of…
The last time I travelled to the US was in April 2001 when I stayed in New York with my mother to celebrate my 40th birthday. The one place that I really wanted to see again was Ellis Island.
By then, the gateway for millions of immigrants had started a journey of restoration, thanks to public generosity in response to an appeal launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. The Island of Hope, Island of Tears is a modern educational resource, now known as the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.
From my second visit, I remember the mix of people representing the myriad of races and nationalities that comprise the history of US immigration. Barely a week earlier, the American Family Immigration History Centre had opened up arrival records to everyone.
We watched with fascination the reactions of young and old visitors as they discovered details of their relatives on the new electronic database recording details of 22 million immigrants, passengers and crew members who had been processed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924.
I’d been to the US several times in the intervening years but the first and last of my visits are the most memorable.
When I started University in 1979, my room was next to an American spending a year in England. She lived in New Jersey and studied at Boston University. We became friends and she invited me to visit her family and the University. My parents managed to find the money for my airfare believing that this would possibly be my only chance to visit America.
I experienced a country that was both inspiring and depressing in equal measure. I remember huge shopping malls, noisy television gameshows, the thickness of McDonalds’ milkshakes and themed restaurants. I recall being bombarded by questions by people who were fascinated to meet someone British. They wanted to hear news of the Iranian hostages.
Their interest spoke to the concerns of a nation in a presidential election year that Ronald Reagan would win on a promise of restoring confidence, with a slogan of Let’s Make America Great Again.
After spending a few days with my friend at BU, I returned alone to New Jersey by train. This meant making a change in New York, at Grand Central Station. I was 19 years old and New York public transport had a somewhat gritty reputation. I was bewildered by the crowds of people rushing purposefully around me as I stood with my small blue suitcase like Paddington Bear trying to locate my connection.
A man wearing a suit came up to me and asked where I was headed. He gave me his briefcase and took my luggage. Quickly he took me to the right platform and disappeared into the crowds. The good side of New Yorkers.
This memory of a fleeting moment makes me think of the disorientation of those arriving in a strange country. Of trying to find your way and being unsure who to trust.
The Ellis Island that I’d visited a week or so earlier taking a ferry from New Jersey had conveyed this feeling through its haunting decay. Standing in open halls amongst the remnants of furniture, paperwork and peeling paintwork, I could feel the ghosts of millions of hopeful adults and children seeking a new life.
Shuffling in lines after an ardurous journey. Climbing the stairs of separation. Fearful of a cough or other indication of illness that would attract a chalk mark and an immediate return voyage. Surrounded by noises and smells of different cultures. Holding fast to precious dreams of the wonders that America may offer to those willing to work hard for a new future. The respite it would provide to these huddled masses.
A sense of the powerful decay of Ellis Island that I witnessed in 1980 can be gained from the stunning photographs of the Hospital Laundry building which completed its restoration last year.
Of course, immigration remains a global issue and January 2017 will be marked in history for President Trump’s suspension of the US refugee programme and plans for ‘extreme vetting’ of immigrants.
America – particular the US – has a long history of immigration, as does Britain. Regardless of your position on the issue today, we all ought to empathise with the feelings that drive people to relocate – whether in hope or fear. Nothing has ever communicated that to me more strongly than my first – and in a different way, my more recent – visit to Ellis Island.
Image: HR-ART.NET see: https://www.saveellisisland.org