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December 23, 2010

Slovak woman and her children arriving at Ellis Island, Circa 1906-14. By Augustus Sherman

In a land of immigrants, one was not an alien but simply the latest arrival. Rudolf Arnheim (July 15, 1904 – June 9, 2007)

The news is filled with passionate debates about immigrants lately – Mexicans, Muslims, legal and illegal – and most often the views are negative. When my Slovak great grandmother, Maria Milec, arrived at Ellis Island in 1908,  dressed similarly to the woman above, she was not exactly welcomed with open arms into this country either.  In fact, immigrants of eastern and southern European descent (as well as Asians and Africans) were thought of as lesser quality by most Americans who had immigrated earlier from (mainly) northern Europe.

Seven sons and a daughter, by Augustus Sherman, circa 1906

During the first two decades of its existence, Ellis Island was known to treat these immigrants poorly upon arrival, a reflection of this country’s disdain for their inferior pedigree.  The immigrants, often referred to as “Greenies”, would be fed often on dirty plates and without utensils in a filthy cafeteria.  Some were essentially enslaved, forced to work kitchen duty without pay, and made to buy food at grossly inflated prices. Those in need were turned away by social services agencies who habitually shunned those who were not of similar heritage to their own.

Under Privileged Child at Hull House, 1910 by Lewis Hine, another immigrant photographer of the same era.

Augustus Sherman was the Chief Clerk at Ellis Island when Maria and her husband Paul arrived months apart from Croatia.  He was also an amateur photographer, and he pleaded his fellow workers: “if you see an interesting face, an arresting costume, contact Gus Sherman immediately!”

Guadeloupe woman, by Augustus Sherman, circa 1906-10

For 25 years  he captured expressions of pride, fear and hope on the faces of these immigrants in that small slice of time as they stepped between the two worlds, from old to new.  Most of them probably thought this photography session was part of the immigration process, and readily posed in their costumes with their children, flutes and other meager belongings, afraid of what might happen should they refuse.  However, the pictures were for Gus alone.

Gypsy Family, by Augustus Sherman, circa 1906-1914

The new immigrants, including Paul and Maria, were ferried to Battery Park in Manhattan, where they were greeted by relatives, or runners for factories in Ohio or mines in Pennsylvania looking for cheap labor.  The park became a “sea of clothing” as Slovaks, Romanians and Greeks sadly were shamed into shedding their ethnic clothes, which two weeks earlier had been considered their finest.  Gus Sherman’s photos would be the final image of who they had been.

Romanian Piper, by Augustus Sherman, circa 1906

Gus died in 1925, and his stash of one-of-a-kind photos remained in an attic unnoticed for the next 40 years.   A collection of these pictures was put together in a book, entitled Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920 (I am hoping to see this under the tree this Christmas!).  For more information on the early years of Ellis Island and Gus Sherman, check out Ellis Island, an Historical Perspective, by Andrea Temple and June F. Tyler.  You can browse through these photos and buy them on line at the National Park Service.

Bavarian Man, by Augustus Sherman, circa 1906-1910

It is not new or unusual for the real Americans, meaning those immigrants who came to America a little bit longer ago, to fear the outsiders, the pretenders, the newcomers.  Luis Gutierrez

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2010 11:17 pm

    These are great photos, thank you for sharing them. It’ s great you got your hands on them.

  2. December 23, 2010 11:27 pm

    Aren’t they spectacular? I just love them. Merry Christmas, Lubos

  3. Stan permalink
    December 23, 2010 11:48 pm

    I love that Rudolf Arnheim quote…. we could say the same for Canada. Pleased that you selected the Romany photograph with so much discrimination right now against them in both the UK and France. Merry Christmas Tonya to you and all the family.

    • December 24, 2010 12:01 am

      And in Italy, where they are actively being pushed out.

      Merry Christmas to you and your family too, Stan!

  4. December 24, 2010 12:28 am

    You actually would equate the front door (Ellis Island, legal immigration) with the illegal back door of Mexican invasion? Are you joking?

    And don’t forget the assimilation issue. Legal immigrants in 1900 embraced their new country and did not view it as a pig to be skinned for the country they left.

    • December 24, 2010 8:47 am

      I think you need to read more history books. First of all, most of the legal immigrants in the 1900s fully intended to go back to their homelands as soon as they had made enough money to do so. As many as 30% did, while many others could never afford to in the end. Most sent the money they made back home to their families.

      Secondly, the “front door” merely reflected the sentiment felt by the rest of the country. Once they stepped over the threshold and were shamed into removing all traces of their heritage, they were treated as second class citizens. They were exploited by business and government. More stories to come on that…

      Why do you think most people came here in the first place? Largely to escape religious or political persecution, because economic opportunities were better, or to seek relief from famine. The immigration policies changed after 1920, making it more difficult to immigrate here, and resulted in fewer people coming. Perhaps we should look at letting more people in legally again.

      People certainly didn’t come here with the intent to assimilate; cultural and legal policies forced them to. Many Slovak immigrants, especially women, were isolated in their homes, unable to learn English easily for lack of opportunity, and remained outcasts in society for the rest of their lives. I don’t call that successful assimilation.

      I take it from the tone of your email that you think you are somehow superior to others who are seeking the same things from this country that your ancestors did when they first came. And most likely, they suffered the disdain of people who have attitudes just like yours.

      • Jay Ess permalink
        February 17, 2014 2:54 pm

        Congratulations for such a perfect and dignified reply!
        Congratulations on your selection of potos… the best of them all is Lewis W Hine’s of the little boy looking straight at the camera.

  5. December 24, 2010 8:35 am

    You’ve reminded us all who we are. Everywhere we look (including in the mirror) are families who left their homes with just what they could carry and hearts full of hope. When they got here, even though it wasn’t quite what they expected, they created new lives. Inspiring.

  6. Jay Ess permalink
    February 17, 2014 2:55 pm


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