Book Review: American Passage: The History Of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato


Author: Vincent J. Cannato
TitleAmerican Passage: The History Of Ellis Island
Narrator: Jonathan Hogan
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2009)
Summary/Review:

American Passage offers a comprehensive history of Ellis Island from the 1890s to today.  Cannato’s thesis is that the history of Ellis Island as an immigration inspection station parallels the history of American attempts to restrict immigration.  Prior to Ellis Island opening in 1892, there had been few restrictions against immigration in United States history, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of a decade earlier being the first major restriction legislated by the Federal government.

The opening of Ellis Island itself was part of a Federal immigration reform effort that began with taking over the state immigration inspection station at Castle Garden in 1890.  The move to Ellis Island was prompted by three factors.  One, the need for an isolated location to screen passengers for infectious diseases.  Two, to isolate newly arrived immigrants from the scam artists who gathered around Castle Garden. And three, to similarily keep immigration agents seperate from the temptation of bribery and corruption that occurred in lower Manhattan.

While the earliest exclusions of immigrants were for disease and disability, movements soon grew to agitate for greater restrictions on immigration, often based on prejudice and fearmongering.  Immigrant aid societies often stood up to defend immigrants, there were also a good number of naturalized citizens and descendants of immigrants who saw the current immigrants as inferior.  Much of the discrimination was against immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Laws would be made to exclude immigrants based on political beliefs, the suspicion that an immigrant would become a “public charge,” eugenic ideas of intelligence, and moral turpitude.  Major politicians in both parties seemed to straddle the line between welcoming immigrants and stricter restrictions.  Interestingly, three consecutive Presidents (Roosevelt, Taft, & Wilson) ended up vetoing one of the anti-immigrant crusaders greatest desires, a literacy test. Another interesting reform proposal was to create equality by having all immigrants – not just those from steerage – screened at Ellis Island, but was quickly shot down by the elites from first and second class who did not want to mingle with their “inferiors.”

It should be noted that despite all these efforts to restrict immigration, only 2% of the arrivals at Ellis Island were denied entry.  The lack of staff and resources meant that the flood of immigrants passing through each day received only cursory inspection.  And many of the agents were sympathetic to the new arrivals and did not follow the regulations to the letter of the law.  When eugenecists were conducting research on Ellis Island, the immigration station’s doctors were angered that their research interpreted that natural confusion of immigrants in a stressful situation as a sign of inferior intellectual capacity.

By 1924, the anti-immigration forces pushed quota acts through Congress, ending mass immigration. Around this time, the numbers immigrants crossing the borders of Mexico and Canada began to surpass those entering through New York.  Requiring potential immigrants to go through screening at American consulates in their country of origin, also slowed the number of new arrivals.

For its final three decades of operation, Ellis Island served primarily as a detention center.  Noted anarchist Emma Goldman spent her last days in America at Ellis Island before deportation.  Suspected Axis sympathizers – primarily German-American – were rounded up in the early days of the United States entry into World War II.  During the Cold War it would hold communists, or those suspected of communist sympathies.  Ellis Island closed as an immigration and detention center in 1954 as the United States entered into a period of low immigration.

The buildings on Ellis Island fell to ruin over the ensuing decades with various proposals for what to do with the island put forth from time to time.  One of the more interesting ideas came from an organization of African American capitalists who hoped to use the island as a utopian community to help recovering addicts and criminals prosper by producing goods for sale.  The Nixon administration gave a lot of support to the idea as a way that Republicans could make connections with Blacks in a way that was opposite to the Great Society reforms.

Ellis Island would eventually be renovated as kind of a side project of Lee Iacocca’s public-private partnership to renovate the Statue of Liberty for its centennial in 1986.  Cannato discusses the efforts to make a proper museum and shrine that places Ellis Island in its proper historical context.  The idea that immigration is a shared part of American heritage is one that is questioned by people descended from indigenous peoples, those brought to America by force and enslaved, and even Anglo-Saxon Americans who see their ancestors as “settlers” rather than immigrants.

I thought this book was an interesting overview of Ellis Island, although it does have a top down focus.  Cannato offers a lot of detail about the careers of the directors of Ellis Island and the actions of various politicians and elites from Presidents on down.  I would like to also read a book that offers more of the perspective of immigrants passing through Ellis Island, and those detained for longer periods, as well as the everyday employees.  I think that would make a good complement to this otherwise excellent history.

Recommended booksThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice by Chad Millman, Five Points by Tyler Anbinder
Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 15


99% Invisible :: The Accidental Room

The absolutely true story of a community of artists secretly building a condominium in a vacant space within a shopping mall.

WBUR :: Hundreds Buried In Nameless Graves In Waltham ID’d By Local Historian And High-Schoolers

High school students work to identify the graves of people who had been kept in institutions for people with mental and physical disabilities from the 1940s to 1970s.  A horrifying glimpse into the recent history of the mistreatment of people with disabilities.

WBUR :: What A Boston Student’s Deportation Reveals About School Police and Gang Intelligence

Of course, injustice is still with us today, as this story of school policing and discrimination against immigrants demonstrates.

 

Photopost: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island


This Thanksgiving weekend, my family & I visited the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. I’ve been to Ellis Island twice before as an adult, but my last visit to Liberty Island was when I was a small child in the 1970s.  Every child should get the chance to visit the Statue of Liberty at least once, so I purchased tickets well ahead for the full experience.

The ferries are efficient at getting visitors to the island although the experience of slowly disembarking with the “huddled masses,” hearing dozens of languages spoken around you, and being barked at to keep moving along is perhaps an unintentional living history experience of our immigrant forebears.  Once on Liberty Island, we were able to move more freely from the crowds.  We had tickets to go all the way to the crown, but first we circled the island listening to the excellent audio tour which told us about the history of the island, the statue, and the many things the Statue of Liberty has come to represent.  My favorite new thing I learned is that since women were prohibited from attending the dedication ceremonies in 1886, a group of women activists hired a boat to circle around the island and shout protests to disrupt the event.

It was an overcast day and rather blustery, but the warmest day of the weekend, so it was a good day to take in the views of the harbor.  The wall of skyscrapers spanning the Hudson River is particularly spectacular from this angle, and made me realize how much it has changed since my childhood (especially Lower Manhattan and the spectacular growth of Jersey City).  Finally we got out of the wind and headed inside to scale the Statue (having to fuss with some unfriendly lockers and crowds before entering).

The walk up the pedestal was not bad and then there was a nice view from the balcony, albeit exposed to stronger winds.  Then we continued up the spiral staircase to the crown.  This is something that was changed significantly during the renovations in the 1980s and a glimpse of the remnant of the old staircase actually brought back a memory of climbing them as a child.  The stairs were long and steep but didn’t feel all too taxing to climb.  The greater challenge was keeping my head down to avoid getting clocked.

And then suddenly we were at the top!  The crown is much smaller than I imagined (or remembered), basically a small platform no bigger than a landing between the upstairs and the downstairs.  We briefly took in the view, took a few pictures, and I banged my head a couple of times, and headed back down.  After a visit to the museum at the base, we took a crowded ferry to Ellis Island.

We had lunch in the cafe which had tables and chairs modeled on those used at the immigration processing center, thus once again giving a living history experience.  The audio guides lead us through the Great Hall and surrounding rooms following the experience of newly arrived immigrants processed through the buildings.  Even my 7-year-old was able to maintain interest through the whole thing.  There were several other exhibits we did not make it to that focused on the history of immigration before and after Ellis Island, as well as hard hat tours of buildings not yet renovated.  But it had already been a long, and tiring day.

Before departing we visited the Wall of Honor, the only wall we should have for immigrants in this country.  The kids were able to find the name of their great-great grandmother Bridget King Sullivan who arrived at Ellis Island from Ireland in 1908.  We sailed back to Manhattan followed by a flock of seagulls, hopefully to return another day.

Vista of New York

 

Ms. Liberty
A ferry cruises in front of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
Liberty’s foot steps free of her chains.

The interior structure of the Statue.
The Great Hall on Ellis Island is perhaps the most important room in United States history.
The kids find their great-great grandmother’s name on the Wall of Honor.
The Main Building on Ellis Island.

Sailing back to Manhattan.

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 22


Last Seen :: 81 Minutes

The first part of this special series on the Isabella Gardner Museum art heist focuses on what the thieves did during the incredible amount of time they had to roam about the museum.

This American Life :: Let Me Count the Ways

From the Muslim Ban to Family Separation, we are all very aware of the means the current administration is crushing immigration to the U.S., but this episode uncovers many other ways that the fascist regime is using to force their agenda into the American norms.

99% Invisible :: Billboard Boys

A contest involving men camping out on a billboard to promote a local radio station in Allentown, PA turns into a dystopian display of the deleterious effects of Reagan Era capitalism on everyday Americans.

Risk! :: The Mayor of Mitchell Gardens

A rabbi and stand-up comedian, Danny Lobell, tells stories of the people he got to know – the good and the bad – while working in a senior home.

More or Less :: DNA – Are You More Chimp or Neanderthal?

Unravelling DNA and what it tells us about our ancient ancestors and modern cousins.

Podcasts of the Week for July 21st


Hit Parade :: The Deadbeat Club, Part 2

This examination of the late 80s output of the two great bands of Athens, GA – R.E.M. and B-52s – fills me with painful nostalgia.

Have You Heard? :: The Problem with Fear-Based School Reform

Do schools work better when they’re “run like a business” and teachers and administrators are forced to work in a culture of fear where they’re expected to get results or else?  Or do we recognize the nurturing mission of schools and support reforms lead by educators who know the children best? And how much of so-called “education reform” is rooted in anti-labor sentiment anyway?  These questions and more are discussed on “Have You Heard?”

WBUR News :: Faneuil Hall, School Assignments

Boston’s ongoing history of inequality and racism are addressed in two current stories about Faneuil Hall, a building named for a slaveholder, and the lack of quality education for the city’s most vulnerable communities.

BackStory :: The Melting Pot

Stories of assimilation of immigrants, Native Americans, and hyphenated-Americans throughout our history.

Podcast of the Week Ending June 30


Decoder Ring :: Clown Panic

A history of clowns and how they’ve gone from funny to terrifying.

Hidden Brain :: Looking Back: Reflecting On The Past To Understand The Present

There are times when a song, book, or tv show I loved leaves me with a feeling of crippling nostalgia, so I was interested in this examination on how our brains reflect on the past.

To The Best of Our Knowledge :: Is Guilt A Wasted Emotion?

Speaking of reflecting on the past, how about an unhealthy dose of regret and guilt.

The Sounds in My Head :: “Hey, the 80’s called…”

A podcast full of current music that sounds like it was made in the 1980s.  But the good New Wave sounds of the 80s, not the crumby songs that actually made the top 40 in the 80s.

HUB History :: Immigration in Boston

Present day anti-immigrant prejudice and hysteria has long historical roots as seen in these three stories from Boston history: the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Chinese tongs in Chinatown, and the destruction of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown.

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 27


Radiolab :: Border Trilogy, Part 1

Stories of the Mexican-American border featuring a high school in El Paso where the students resist their harassment at the hand of the border patrol.

Risk! :: Babies

Mariah McCarthy’s story about her pregnancy, labor, and turning over her child for adoption is beautiful and weep inducing.

99 Percent Invisible :: Airships Future Never

I love airships and the future of airships that never was.

Levar Burton Podcast :: “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets”

A humorous and touching story about a man who buys a coat at a thrift store in which slips of papers appear that have the prayers of people in the vicinity.

 

 

 

 

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 17


HUB History ::  The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

The fascinating story of the most famous brain injury.

Planet Money :: Rigging the Economy

Liberal-tarians agree!  The economy is rigged.

Planet Money ::  XXX-XX-XXX

The history of the Social Security number.

Afropop Worldwide :: Roots and Future: A History of UK Dance

Caribbean music traditions and US dance beats come together in the only place they can: the United Kingdom.  A history of jungle, garage, drum & bass, and grime.  This made very nostalgic for the dance tracks of yore.

Have You Heard? :: Strong: Lessons from the West Virginia Teachers Strike

Reporting from the West Virginia teachers strike, featuring interviews with many, many teachers.

Invisibilia :: The Other Real World

Using a reality talent show to counter Islamist extremism in Somalia.

BackStory :: Wherever Green is Worn: The Irish in America

Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes, the Molly Maguires, and other Irish Americans of lore.

Re:sound :: Analog

When I was a kid I recorded myself as the DJ of a “tape radio” station called WLTS, so I feel a kinship with Mark Talbot. Also a repeat of the Ways of Seeing story I highlighted last summer.

 

Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana

Author: Taiye Selasi
TitleGhana Must Go
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

I was surprised that my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana turns out to have a good portion of the narrative set close to home in the Boston, Massachusetts area.  Selasi’s novel is a story of immigration, family, the long term ramifications of choices made, and an attempt to peer beyond the stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

The novel is set around the family of Kweku Sai, long isolated from one another, coming together in Ghana for his funeral.  Kweku immigrated to America where he became a celebrated surgeon, but after being unjustly fired, the great shame causes him to leave his family and return to Ghana.  His wife Fola was a law student who gave up her career to support Kweku, and faces difficult choices when forced to raise 4 children on her own.  The eldest son Olu follows his father into medicine, but his father’s abandonment leaves him fearful of commitment.  The sister-brother twins Taiwo and Kehinde bear the scars of being sent to live with Fola’s brother in Nigeria after Kweku’s departure and the sexual abuse they suffered there. The youngest child Sadie didn’t know her father at all and until shortly before the main narrative begins had been very close with her mother.  All of their stories are told in extended flashbacks intertwined with the present day story.

This is a heartbreaking and harrowing novel and should come with a big trigger warning.  It unfortunately tends toward the melodramatic although there is honesty in the family dynamics portrayed.  Thankfully, this is also a story of redemption and healing, although it is still hard to not feel unsettled after reading.

Recommended booksThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri  and Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 9th


99% Invisible :: The Nut Behind the Wheel

A history of how the auto industry and road engineers avoided including safety measures in their designs in their cars and highways leading to countless deaths, and how they blamed everything on the driver.  Yes this should make you think of firearms manufacturers.

Fresh Air :: The Golden Age of Comics

An interview with Cullen Murphy who took over writing “Prince Valiant” from his father in the 1980s.  Murphy remembers how special the full-color Sunday comics section was for children, and the community of comic artists in Fairfield County, CT.  Not mentioned in the interview, Murphy and I went to the same high school, albeit he attended well before I did.

Hidden Brain :: What Can A Personality Test Tell Us About Who We Are?

Hidden Brain examines personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs.  Scientific or a glorified form of astrology?  Worse still, how employers are misusing these tests in personnel decisions.

Fresh Air :: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg discusses “The Pentagon Papers” and top secret plans for nuclear war that he discovered as a national security analyst in the 1960s but was not able to reveal to the public at the time.  A chilling look into the United States’ militaristic past and present.

Hub History :: Boston and Halifax, a lasting bond

One hundred years ago, a collision in Halifax Harbor caused a munitions ship to explode, devastating the city and causing thousands of deaths and injuries.  Boston responded by sending a train with medical personnel and supplies to help the survivors.  To this day, Nova Scotia continues to thank Boston by providing a Christmas tree every year.

60 Second Science :: Yeti Claims Don’t Bear Up

Science disappoints us again by showing that evidence of the Yeti is genetically just a bear.  Well, not “just,” because bears are important to, and these studies tell us more about them.

The Bernie Sanders Show :: Our Budget Priorities with Elizabeth Warren

Two of our few remaining sensible Senators discuss important things that make sense.

Decode DC :: The Changing Race of Immigration in America

A history of immigration to America focusing on who was allowed to “become American” and who was excluded, and the government’s role in all of this.