April 17th is recognized as Ellis Island Family History Day, so tomorrow, Americans are encouraged to celebrate and recognize the contributions made to our country by those who came through Ellis Island. Many of my own ancestors, including my great-grandparents, came through Ellis Island in the early 1900s.
The United States is a nation of immigrants, many of whom came through Ellis Island, and their ancestry comes from all over the world. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, individuals across the world (from Liverpool to Calabria to Istanbul) came through the “golden doors” to America. The island served as the primary immigration station in the United States and was designed to handle up to 7,000 passengers each day.
While many people came to Ellis Island to begin a new life, many were also sent away. Coming through Ellis Island was not always a guarantee, and there were differences between how first-class and steerage passengers were treated. Ellis Island soon came to be known as the “Isle of Tears,” as many came with the hope of starting a new life but were soon deported.
Despite that, it is estimated that nearly 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island from 1892, when the “doors” first opened, to 1954, when the island was closed as an immigration station. As a result, immigrants have played and continue to play a large part in shaping American culture. Albert Einstein, Madeline Albright, Eddie Van Halen, and Joanie Mitchell all immigrated to the US, and contributed a great deal to science, the arts, and government. Comedian Bob Hope also came through Ellis Island from England, and played a very important role in maintaining and improving morale for active-duty American military, especially during World War II.
Immigration is a big part of American history, so you may be wondering what you can do in your classroom to celebrate this day while engaging your students in learning about the immigrant experience. We’ve got a few ideas for you!
- The National Park Service has a virtual oral history collection that includes both transcripts and audio where immigrants discuss select topics such as their experiences of coming through Ellis Island and holding onto the traditions of their homeland while living in America.
- Scholastic has an interactive virtual tour where students can follow in the footsteps of those who came through Ellis Island while learning about them as individuals and their experiences.
- National Geographic has a short video on YouTube where they broach the question of what “Lady Liberty” and Ellis Island mean today.
Ideas for Further Study
After discussing immigration through Ellis Island, perhaps looking through the sources above, and reading through stories about the immigration experience, you might consider areas of further study like the following:
- Immigration has changed tremendously over the years. Have your students consider the following questions as part of your coursework: What is the process of immigration today? Where are the majority of immigrants processed when arriving in the US? How has the path to citizenship changed since the days of Ellis Island?
- Many immigrants have made huge contributions to the arts, science, education, and music, among many more fields! Have your students research famous immigrants and their contributions here in the United States.
- Though the United States is a nation of immigrants, immigration is a hot button topic of debate, especially in recent years. Have your students examine both sides of the argument or even participate in a classroom debate about immigration.
- To enhance your students’ knowledge about the immigrant experience, visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s website. Have your students learn more about what it was like to immigrate to and then live in the US in the early 1900s (while developing their interest in history at the same time!).
There are many other resources about immigration to the United States and the immigrant’s experience in the early 20th century, probably even at some of your local museums! Since the heyday of immigration through Ellis Island wasn’t so long ago, it’s possible that many of your students have a connection to someone who entered the US there (and a few of them might even be immigrants themselves). It’s important, then, to recognize and explain the significance of immigration to both American history and our country today, and these resources offer you great guidance on how to start that conversation.
To see how other educators are engaging in Ellis Island Family History Day, connect with them on Twitter using the hashtags #histedchat and #ellisisland, and make sure to tag @EllisIsland and @EdgenuityInc to share your ideas!