A thought-provoking new exhibition of portraits of immigrants, taken at Ellis Island by registry clerk Augustus F. Sherman, recently opened at the National Heritage Museum, and will be on view until April 26,2009. Equally as intriguing is Ellis Island’s place in American history as the primary immigration processing center at the height of immigration.
Leaving their homelands to escape poverty or religious or political persecution, or lured by the promise of economic opportunity, more than 20 million people immigrated to America between 1892 and 1924. Some traveled with their families, but many sent a husband or older child to America to work for several years to pay for the rest of the family’s passage. More than 70 percent of them traveled through Ellis Island. Today, historians believe that more than 40 percent of Americans are descended from these trailblazers.
Augustus F. Sherman took the photographs featured in the exhibition from 1905-1920, during Ellis Island’s heyday. In 1907, the peak year, more than 1 million immigrants passed through its halls. The largest numbers were Catholics and Jews from eastern Europe, as well as Italians and Greeks. Many Germans, Dutch and Irish immigrated to America during this period as well.
Officials at Ellis Island processed immigrants primarily to weed out the sick and the indigent. Well-off travelers were assessed aboard ship, but the passengers traveling in steerage or third class disembarked at Ellis Island. There, doctors inspected them for “a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease,” mental illness, or physical deformities, writing codes in chalk on the immigrants’ clothing to indicate potential health problems. Then, aided by interpreters, inspectors questioned each immigrant about his or her name, place of origin, literacy level, job skills, and financial means, to determine whether he or she was likely to become a burden to American society. Officials detained those suspected of problems for anxiety-ridden hours, days or weeks. These were the people Sherman photographed. Although most immigrants ultimately made it to New York, 2 percent were deported.
World War I intensified native-born Americans’ fears of foreigners. The U.S. government soon passed new immigration laws, enacted in 1924, which set quotas and slowed the influx of immigrants to America. As immigration legislation changed, Ellis Island’s role as a processing station became unnecessary. Its function shifted to law enforcement—arrest and deportation of foreigners suspected of crimes—until it finally closed in 1954. It reopened in 1990 as a museum, paying tribute to the many intrepid travelers who passed through its doors to start new lives in America.
The Great Hall seen from the west balcony, pre-1916. Augustus Frederick Sherman. Ellis Island, New York. Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum