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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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