Walking to the ferry and freedom


PM, November 14, 1940, p. 18 (Photos by Margaret Bourke-White)

Ellis Island Continued:

Uncle Sam Services His Timid Guests Well…

Ellis Island authorities said food for temporary guests was good. PM’s representatives were hungry. The food was excellent. They were served tomato soup, Yankee pot roast with vegetable sauce, boiled potatoes, stewed corn, bread and butter, stewed figs and coffee. The Government doesn’t do the cooking. D.T. McGowan is commissary contractor. However, the kosher kitchen is operated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. These immigrant children are sitting in the dining room, below a WPA mural depicting the contribution of immigrants to the growth of the U.S.A.

Not all detained on Ellis Island wait to come in. Many are waiting to go out for one reason or another. Those awaiting may have jumped ship, entered illegally by other means, or have been convicted of a crime. Deportees are segregated, kept closely guarded.

Every refugee has a hair raising story to tell. This dignified patriarch, here with his family from Poland, politely declined to talk.


PM, November 14, 1940, p. 19 (Photos by Margaret Bourke-White)

…And Helps Them Have Fun While They Wait

Bibles in 86 languages or dialects are available to aliens through the courtesy of the New York Bible Society, which has kept a representative there since the station was opened.

Cases may be decided in 24 hours but a five month wait is not rare. Immigrants while away their time in many ways. Solitaire is a favorite time consumer. This man said he was patient.

The Government keeps its guests free, but makes no provision for entertainment. The American Tract Society Tract Society maintains the island Welfare Library with 10,000 volumes in 30 languages.

Living quarters for immigrants are immaculate. Every place one turns a porter is mopping or sweeping. Guests sleep In dormitory rooms directly above these racks. Health regulations on the island forbid the taking of clothing or personal effects to sleeping rooms. For all practical purposes, immigrants live around these racks, which hold all their earthly possessions. Deportees have no such freedom. They are confined in another part of the building. These guests may move about freely within the huge central reception hall.


PM, November 14, 1940, p. 20 (Photos by Margaret Bourke-White)

Young and Old, They Want to Share in Democracy

Education of new Americans begins the moment they reach Ellis Island. Social agencies provide teachers to acquaint the children among immigrants of new customs, new language, a new way of life. Many children already speak English. This Chinese boy does not, and neither do his fellow students. The other boy is Belgian, the girl German. The classroom is a long hall in a wing of the main building. School sessions are held daily from 1 to 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Classroom work doesn’t take all the time. Play periods are even more popular.

Hom Ging Gee is having his unruly hair combed by his mother, Woon Shee. He’s popular with other immigrants because he listens intently.

A private social welfare agency pays the salary of Mrs. Jennie F. Pratt, the teacher in this photo. These Chinese boys learn English by ear, because they can’t easily master the alphabet of the English language. They are the best behaved pupils in the Ellis Island School.

Youngest in the class, this refugee child from Germany is all ears to a new lesson. She’s the most popular kid in the class.


PM, November 14, 1940, p. 21 (Photos by Margaret Bourke-White)

Visitors are permitted daily from 2 to 3. Two enclosures at one end of the main reception hall are set aside for friends and relatives. Lawyers also come at this time to discuss cases with clients seeking admission to the country. Not all immigrants have visitors. If they have no family or friends, more than 10 social welfare agencies have representatives on the island to assist those in distress. These welfare workers are real friends, know the immigration law inside and out, and help their charges make a fresh start when released to take up residence in their adopted homeland.

Immigrants released from detention see this friendly scene when they walk from the immigration building to the ferry and freedom.

Photos by Margaret Bourke-White

(The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HAIS was founded in 1881, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, “to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS has touched the life of nearly every Jewish family in America and now welcomes all who have fled persecution.”)

(“The Role of the Immigrant in the Industrial Development of America” (1935-1938), by Edward Laning (1906-1981), 10 by 190 feet long, was displayed at Ellis Island until the early 1950s when it was partially destroyed by a storm. In 1970 “several panels [were] restored and re-installed in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.” Laning also painted the extraordinary “The Story of the Recorded Word” (1938-1942) murals at NYPL.)

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