Immigrants remember Ellis Island

Journey to citizenship driven by desire for a better life

August 17, 2000|By Paul H. Johnson | Paul H. Johnson,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Artemio Hernandez spends his days by the water. Every afternoon, the wiry and energetic 87-year-old Cuban takes the subway to Battery Park from his Upper West Side home to watch the ships pass by and to admire the Statue of Liberty.

"I go there to remember my younger days," said Hernandez, who likes to remember the days when he lived in the South Ferry section of Manhattan 60 years ago, after he first came to the United States as a stowaway, huddled in the hold of a passenger ship.

Hernandez came to the United States through Ellis Island. Actually, he came through Ellis Island 14 times from 1935 to 1940.

Determined to become an American, he sneaked onto passenger liners bound for the United States from Havana and when he tried to escape undetected after the ships landed, he invariably got caught. It was a common method of illegally entering the country. Then he would be taken to a dormitory on Ellis Island where they showed him Humphrey Bogart movies and he played cards and basketball with his fellow detainees.

"It was better than being on the street," Hernandez said.

Joined merchant marine

He finally came to America for good in the 1940s when he joined the U.S. merchant marine. He still carries his registration papers from that period, detailing every ship he worked on from 1946 to 1954. It's a job that took him around the world, from the battle zones of the Korean War to the shores of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Hernandez later became a cook, working everywhere from diners to Fifth Avenue bistros to the Paramus Park mall.

A fourth of Americans can trace their heritage through Ellis Island, but Hernandez illustrates the story of the approximately 180,000 Africans and blacks who passed through the island between 1892 and 1954 -- the year the island was shut as the entry point for all immigrants arriving in New York. Their experiences shed light on a little-known story about black life during the first half of the 20th century.

At the same time that blacks began to emigrate from the Caribbean in significant numbers, African-Americans started a migration from the sharecropping fields of the South to the factories of the North.

"We came together," said George Powell of Teaneck about the arrival of Southern blacks and black people from Caribbean to the cities of the North. Powell's mother, Mary Shaw Powell, came through Ellis Island in 1916 when she was 20-year-old woman from the island of St. Kitts.

African-Americans and West Indians moved to the North for the same reason, Powell said: to find a better life.

Discovering the truth

"When my mother came here, she was told that the streets were paved in gold and New York was low heaven," Powell recalled. She was disappointed when she first laid eyes on New York City and discovered the truth, he said.

While the majority of men and women who immigrated through Ellis Island came from Italy and Eastern Europe, the arrival of nearly 40,000 black people from the Caribbean at the turn of the century transformed black New York.

"Most people don't know there was a significant migration from the Caribbean," said Professor Irma Watkins-Owens of Fordham University. She said the infusion of black foreigners helped shape the Harlem Renaissance, a vibrant period widely recognized as a cultural, musical, and artistic explosion in the capital of black America. People from the Caribbean made up a quarter of the African-American population of New York by the 1920s, she said.

"The famous Harlem we know was composed of multiethnic blacks," Watkins-Owens said.

The Caribbean migration included famous men such as Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican who formed the United Negro Improvement Association. The group became the largest black organization in the nation by the early 1920s. Other figures of the period included writers such as Jamaican-born Claude McKay, the Harlem Renaissance-era writer who described his journey through Ellis Island in his memoir, "A Long Way From Home."

"At last the ship was moored and I came down to the pavement. Ellis Island: doctors peered in my eyes, officials scrutinized my passport and the gates were thrown open," McKay wrote of his arrival after first traveling to England.

Historical attention

Historians are just beginning to examine the journey of blacks who came through Ellis Island and want to expand its multihued canvas of immigration to include people of African descent.

"What does Ellis Island mean?" asked Paul Donnelly of the Immigration Reform Coalition of Washington, D.C. "It means anybody can come to the United States and become American."

Donnelly recalls working with Barbara Jordan, the former Democratic congresswoman who headed President Clinton's U.S. Commission for Immigration Reform in the early 1990s. Donnelly said Jordan told him it was time for blacks to reclaim the image of Ellis Island to honor the memory of the black immigrant.

"It's our history, and we're taking it back," Donnelly said Jordan told him.

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