Ellis Island is an interesting case study when discussing the American collective memory. Collective memory often refers to how a group of people remember something.1 In this case, we are discussing how the American people remember a certain national event or place and attach that memory to the national identity. Those memories of specific events and places shape how Americans view themselves and their country in the greater sphere of the world. There are very few places that exist in the United States in which so many Americans share a meaningful and often direct connection to as they do with Ellis Island. Few other places can claim such a hold on millions of descendants of Americans within the last century. As a public history space, Ellis Island also embodies the ideals of the “American Dream” and our identity as a nation of immigrants. At the same time, this identity is often collectively ignored in recent decades of political conversations. This personal and collective memory is what makes studying Ellis Island and preserving it so important.
Nearly one half of Americans today can trace their ancestry back to the immigration port of Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954.2 That is a staggering number and emphasizes the fact that at least half of the population is directly descended from recent immigrants. Relatedly, this number does not even begin to address recent immigration from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, whose numbers are even more astounding than those at the beginning of the 20th century from Europe. My paternal grandmother possessed mixed-heritage and was a direct result of multiple immigrants. Her mother was a product of French and Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. during the 1880s and 1890s, while her father was Irish and came from Belfast in 1922 directly through Ellis Island.
It is funny how collective memory works. Ellis Island plays a major role in American history and most people acknowledge it as a national treasure that deserves preserving. However, this national monument that saw 1.1 million immigrants pass through its gates in a single year (1906), fails to remind Americans that we are indeed a country of immigrants.3 As a nation we also seem to have a short memory, one that wants to deny recent immigrants a place in the “American Dream,” while forgetting our own personal stories and the immigrants that allowed each of us a life of freedom and the chance for more. Throughout American history each new wave of immigrants has seen new levels of discrimination and push back. The 1840s to around 1900 saw massive discrimination against the Irish, on a level unparalleled to other immigrant groups of the time.4 The 1920s saw immense discrimination against eastern and southern Europeans with the introduction of extremely limited quotas that to this day remain unchanged. The 1950s and 60s were no different, with waves of immigrants from Germany, Mexico, and Cuba and discrimination occurring in the form of initiatives. One such initiative was Operation Wetback (1954) which forced the return of illegal Mexicans to Mexico, but often resulted in immediate deportation without the right to prove citizenship.5 The most recent example being immigrant groups from the Middle East, Mexico, central, and southern America. A general google search will provide article after article illustrating protests and violence against recent immigrants.
Immigration is just one framework in which to examine Ellis Island. In fact, there are many angles from which to discuss. As I mentioned, immigration, quotas, and discrimination are just a few of the areas. There is also the history of the island itself, its preservation, and its necessity as a public space. All of these subjects are worth writing about, and most likely I will tackle each one as time goes, but for now, I simply want to discuss Ellis Island in terms of American collective memory. I think the easiest way to do this is to share my own personal story in the context of the greater narrative.
As I mentioned, I have many ancestors who immigrated to the United States in the last century, but I want to concentrate on a singular story. A future goal of The Cohort is to begin archiving oral histories, and I believe that it starts with our own and those closest to us. I think the fascinating part of history is when personal connections are made and you can see how world events really do affect you and who you are. For me, one of the most significant events to affect the journey of my ancestors was the Irish rebellion and subsequent Irish civil war. Ironically, without that tragic part of Ireland’s history, I may not have been born.
For decades and centuries, Ireland had struggled through uprisings and political endeavors to secure independence, or at the very least Home Rule, from Britain. After decades of trying to separate through parliamentary efforts, the Irish decided that armed insurrection and civil disobedience were a faster means to obtaining their goals.6 Ireland in the early 20th century was volatile and the Easter Rising on April 23, 1916 in Dublin was the catalyst to immediate and violent change.7 It resulted in the execution of many influential resistance leaders. My great-grandfather, James Taylor, was 12 years old living in Belfast when the Easter Rising occurred. Although Belfast was more than 160 km from the violence in Dublin, the lasting effect of the Easter Rising would be felt throughout Ireland. During the next four years, leading to the end of the war between Ireland and Britain, Ireland and its people were subjected to bombings, guerrilla warfare, intense regulations by the British, and much more. On December 6, 1920, Michael Collins and other rebellion leaders signed a treaty in London ending the war. The treaty was considered by some to be the only peaceful solution to end the bloodshed, but to many others it was considered a traitorous event. It was one of the most controversial moments in history and would eventually lead to the murder of the rebellion’s greatest leader, Michael Collins. The terms of the treaty were simple, twenty six counties in the south obtained self-rule (not becoming truly independent until 1948 when it became known at the Republic of Ireland), while six counties in the north would remain part of the Union.8 This treaty and its terms, while ending the immediate conflict with the British, created a divide so deep in Ireland it can still be felt today. It eventually led to a civil war, in which Home Rule factions battled Sinn Fein supporters (those that wanted complete independence) from 1922 to 1923 and forever changed the Irish landscape.
This is the climate my great-great-grandmother, Mary Taylor, and her son, my great-grandfather, James Taylor were living in when they decided to immigrate to the United States. Mary Taylor left Belfast alone in November 1919 and entered the U.S. through Ellis Island on her way to Los Angeles. For a long time, I never understood why she came all the way from Belfast to Los Angeles, rather than staying in New York or the surrounding area. However, recently I discovered that she came from a large family and some of them, including a couple of her brothers, were already in Los Angeles with their families. She was 47 years old, quite an age to start your entire life over, but considering the climate in Ireland in 1919, it seems understandable that anywhere else may had looked better. According to her New York passenger list, Mary sailed on the Mauretania out of Southampton to New York. Based on both her and James Taylor’s New York passenger lists, there were a few key questions that were asked to immigrants. The first was about their “calling” or occupation. It was important that immigrants coming to the U.S. have a useful employment and skills that would enable them to find work easily. For Mary, she was listed as a laundress. For James, he was listed as a shop assistant. Both occupations proved they would be able to find work in the U.S. The other important question to be answered was their final destination. The U.S. government wanted to make sure all immigrants had a plan and knew where they were going.
James Taylor immigrated to the U.S. three years after his mother in November 1922. The civil war began in August of 1922. He left right in the middle of one of the most violent periods in Irish history. James was 18 years old. Eventually he would meet my great-grandmother, Rose Higue, and get married. They had three children together and my great-grandfather started his own roofing company that came to be extremely successful and was passed on to his son when he retired. Had he stayed in Ireland, what would his life have looked like? Would he have lived to be 76 years old, married for over 50 years to the love of his life, and would he have been the embodiment of self-reliance and perseverance? Who can say.
Most Americans have similar stories to mine and most begin at Ellis Island. Standing in the Registry Room at Ellis Island, you can feel all the stories around you. Of hope and despair, of courage and desperation. Each one adds to the American collective memory. My own story and those of my ancestors unite me to a larger moment in American history. My story connects me to half of the U.S. population, where we share a common connection to a singular place. If we stop listening to these stories, and if we stop sharing them, who do we become as a nation or as people? We are a nation of stories, of struggles and successes, of unstoppable hope. I hope that we never forget that.
Lindsey Goodwin is currently the digital learning coordinator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. She received her M.A. in history from the University of San Diego, with a concentration in public history, where she completed her master’s thesis titled, “Conviction Without Trial: Lynching in Mississippi, A Century of Terror 1865-1965.” Lindsey received her B.A. in history and art history from UCLA. She specializes in topics ranging from British and American history to family genealogy research, as well as museum and public history interpretation. In her free time, Lindsey travels often throughout the U.S. and internationally with her husband to continue her education of history and culture.
- Henry L. Roediger, III, and K. Andrew DeSoto, “The Power of Collective Memory,” Scientific American, June 28, 2016, accessed September 14, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-collective-memory/.
- Susan Jonas, ed., Ellis Island, Echoes from a Nation’s Past (New York City: Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1989), 1.
- Norman Kotker, “Welcome: The Immigrants Arrive,” in Ellis Island, Echoes from a Nation’s Past, ed. Susan Jonas (New York City: Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1989), 15.
- Rebecca A. Fried, “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs”, Journal of Social History (Summer 2016): 829–854, accessed September 14, 2016, doi:10.1093/jsh/shv066.
- Kelly L. Hernandez, “The Crimes and Consequences of Illegal Immigration: A Cross Border Examination of Operation Wetback, 1943–1954,” Western Historical Quarterly (2006) 37 (4), 421–444, accessed September 14, 2016, doi:10.2307/25443415.
- Malachy McCourt, Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2004), 222.
- McCourt, Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland, 223.
- McCourt, Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland, 238.