Face of America: Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Between 1897 and 1938, immigration changed the face of America. More than 100 million citizens in the United States can trace their ancestry to an immigrant who landed at New York’s Ellis Island. Ellis Island is more than a museum, it is hallowed ground; it is the place where many immigrants from all over the world first touched American soil. Through the museum’s oral history project and through the everyday objects on display — a pair of boots, a cooking pot, religious artifacts and traditional clothing — the museum strives to “give voice” to people whose lives have not typically been seen as history.
Though some immigrants were fortunate enough to make the ocean crossing in luxurious conditions, many traveled to America in “classic steerage,” which could mean as many as 2,000 people crammed into the lower parts of the ship. It was third class. And third class passengers were the only ones who had to come through Ellis Island.
Ships filled with passengers awaiting processing lined the docks on the Jersey shore. Immigrants were then ferried to Ellis Island. About 5,000 immigrants were processed on an average day – if they were lucky, travelers got off the ferry the same day they got on.
Ethnic enclaves grew in many cities since about two-thirds of the immigrants spread out to other parts of the country, dispersing a wide variety of cultural traditions into the United States. But they all had one thing in common: they wanted to be American.
Ellis Island was closed in 1954. In 1965 it became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The badly deteriorated buildings were restored with funds raised by the American people. The main building, housing the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, reopened 90 years after it had welcomed its first travelers.
The Ellis Island Oral History project prompts emotional recollections from immigrants and family members. Recorded reminiscences give a glimpse of the joy, the pain, the hardships and the dreams of the immigrant experience.
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