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A Tale of Two Islands

By Erika Lee, associate professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty

Ellis Island and Angel Island were both in the news in recent weeks. And the
stories about these two sites where immigrants from around the world were
admitted into the United States tell us a lot about which immigration
histories get remembered and celebrated and which ones do not.

In the New York Times, a story about the genealogical search for the
descendants of fifteen-year old Annie Moore, the first immigrant to arrive
at Ellis Island, graced the front page. Born in County Cork, Ireland, Moore
landed in New York on January 1, 1892. It was opening day for the
immigration station, and Moore's arrival was met with pomp and circumstance.
The superintendent of immigration for the port of New York himself presented
Moore with a $10 gold piece, and Moore was featured in the local news.
Although Ellis Island fell into disrepair after it closed in 1954, renewed
interest in European immigration and its role in "making" America
contributed to the station's massive renovation and celebrated reopening as
a National Monument in 1990.

Consequently, Moore has been celebrated in "story and song" as the first of
12 million immigrants to arrive at Ellis Island. A bronze statue of Moore,
with suitcase in hand and holding her hat in the harbor breeze, graces the
grounds of the island and is passed by 2 million visitors to the site each
year. See "First Through Gates of Ellis I., She Was Lost. Now She's Found"
and the tribute to Moore on the Ellis Island website

Although another Annie Moore had long been considered to be the iconic
immigrant, recent genealogical research uncovered the true identity of the
famous woman. And the details of her life have only increased the mythology
surrounding her. She lived the "typical hardscrabble immigrant life," a
genealogist explained. "She sacrificed herself for future generations." The
professions of her descendants, who include an investment banker and a
Ph.D., are cited as proof that Annie's family was able to achieve the
American dream.

Across the continent, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about Hisayo
Yoshino, another immigrant woman pioneer, who arrived at Angel Island as a
picture bride from Japan in 1912. Yoshino was not the first person to arrive
at Angel Island. That person remains a mystery. Historians are just
beginning to research the rich and diverse history of immigration through
Angel Island, where over one million immigrants from around the world
arrived in the United States. Indeed, the story in the Chronicle reported on
efforts by historians (including myself) and the Angel Island Immigration
Station Foundation to recover the stories of immigrants who spent time on
the island. Angel Island is just now undergoing a massive renovation and
preservation effort, twenty years after Ellis Island was similarly
preserved. See "An effort to keep memories alive; Angel Island: Future museum puts out the call for information about the West's second-largest immigrant group -- 60,000 Japanese"

Reading these two different newspaper stories about Ellis Island and Angel
Island raises a number of questions for me. Why is there so little known
about Angel Island in comparison to its counterpart in New York? Why are
immigrants like Annie Moore memorialized in song, guidebooks, and statues
while we are just beginning to learn about the experiences of someone like
Hisayo Yoshino?

Much of the answer lies in the fact that Ellis Island has largely come to
represent America's history of welcoming and integrating European
immigrants. The museum itself ­ reborn during a period of ethnic revival in
the 1970s and 1980s ­ is a celebration of white ethnic identity. Visitors
can research their immigrant ancestry and contribute to the immigrant "wall
of honor."

On the other hand, the two largest groups of immigrants arriving on Angel
Island during its operation from 1910-1940 were Chinese (175,000) and
Japanese (60,000). Like other Asian immigrants, both groups were targets of
race-based immigration laws that prohibited or largely restricted their
admission into the United States. While the vast majority of immigrants
arriving at Ellis Island spent only a few hours in the processing center,
Asians were subjected to much greater scrutiny, often leading to detentions
that numbered in the days and weeks. Hisayo Yoshino was detained in the
medical hospital on Angel Island for three weeks. She left the island to
enter a life of hardship on the farms of California. During World War Two,
she and her family were forcibly evacuated and interned with other Japanese
Americans. These hardships, combined with the knowledge that they were not
welcomed in the United States, discouraged many Asian immigrants from
sharing their stories of Angel Island, even with their children and
grandchildren.

In short, Angel Island's history, is a hard pill for Americans to swallow.
Instead of reminding us of America's promise, like Ellis Island often does,
it forces us to confront American racism. Yet its story is just as important
for us to remember.

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Erika Lee
Associate Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of History
University of Minnesota
614 Social Sciences Building
267 19th Ave South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
work: 612/624-9569
fax: 612/624-7096

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