An Ellis Island portraitist dignifies the transition from huddled masses to U.S. citizens.
They boarded the great ships that took them from their homes, and they left forever their cultures and contexts, their sense of themselves as weft of a social fabric. It was this, the richness of what people left behind when they set out for a new world, that Augustus F. Sherman, a senior clerk in the Bureau of Immigration on Ellis Island in New York Harbor from 1905 to 1920, sought to capture. An amateur photographer whose interest was sanctioned by his commissioner boss, Sherman put out the word to let him know if a “greenie” with an interesting face or exotic costume was being processed. With the help of a translator, he would pose his bemused subjects, who likely thought this was yet another hurdle in the bureaucratic process that sometimes kept new immigrants resident on Ellis Island for months. A century later, they gaze at us, cleareyed but wary. The poignancy of these portraits lies partly in our knowledge of what lay ahead for every immigrant coming to America: homesickness, loss, hardship—and, eventually, assimilation.
The Clothes They Wore
The huddled masses arrived fleeing civil war, famine, disease, poverty and persecution. They were not met in America with open arms, but rather with prejudice and suspicion—an assistant commissioner of immigration warned of an “undue preponderance of criminals, insane and those becoming public charges” among them. Each ship compiled a “List of Races and Peoples” aboard. There were quotas on many nationalities such as Italians, Greeks, Slavs and Russians, and Chinese were banned outright. After being ferried to Ellis Island, passengers were examined by public health physicians and interrogated about their finances, friends, origins and trades—held within sight of the Statue of Liberty until officials were satisfied. When the fortunate finally made it to shore, there was a final rite of passage: Urged on by more assimilated relatives who awaited them, they cast off the trappings of the old country and donned new clothes. Battery Park, where they landed, was said to be a “sea of garments.”
Into the Melting Pot
They were babes with no idea what they were diving into, only that it was strange. The man with the lights and the camera must have liked kids, as the children of his friends recalled bachelor “Uncle Gussie” with fondness. But the children who sat for him could not understand him, and their confusion is patent. The son of a Pennsylvania merchant, Sherman saw as many as 5,000 immigrants a day pass through during peak years. With the advent of World War I, the tide slowed, and Ellis Island became a place of detention for Bolsheviks and mistrusted ethnic Americans. In 1954, after some 12 million people had been processed there, the station was closed; long after Sherman’s death at the age of 60 in 1925, a niece donated his photographs to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The best are now captured in Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905- 1920 (Aperture). As for his sitters, they have blended into the population of their new land. We may catch a glimpse of their faces when we walk down the street or sit down to table, for—wherever they came from—now they are us.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.