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The First Friend: Why You Should Visit Ellis Island


(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)


What is home? Is it your place of birth or the land you established your roots? From 1892-1924, over 12 million people decided that home was an abstract concept. These immigrants knew that life in the nameless shtetl, village, or city did not offer the same opportunities as the United States. The United States promoted meritocracy and dismissed aristocracy. The fledging country allowed people of different creeds, nationalities, and economic statuses to create a better life.


(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)



I am a descendant of immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island. My great-grandparents emerged from the bottom of the boat, greeted by a towering bronze statue and a steel skyline.

(Image courtesy of The Library of Congress. The image depicts An illustration of immigrants on the steerage deck of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1887. You can see this image at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97502086/)



The Statue of Liberty had a similar story to those on the boat. She was also an immigrant (she was from France). She stood confidently, welcoming all to the American shore. Eventually, her bronze patinated to a vibrant green. I don't know what my family thought when they first saw her. But I knew what I felt. When I was fourteen, my family and I went to New York City for the first time. We took the boat from Battery Park and went to Ellis Island. As we approached the island, I realized how the Statue of Liberty was everyone's first American friend. She symbolized a new dawn of tolerance and opportunity. She was undeterred by past injustices as she faced new opportunities.



(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)

I recently spoke with Suzanne Mannion, Director of Public Affairs at The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, to learn more about why you should visit.



(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)




1. Why should someone visit The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island?

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognizable structures in the world. That alone is

reason enough to visit the monument, but there is much more to her story and to an on-island

experience. Viewing the statue from the ferry and then while walking around Liberty Island, visitors

understand that she is a work of art. You see that her famous patina hue changes with the light

and note details in her design, from the curve of her robe to the intricacies of her face, hands,

and feet. Some visitors find Lady Liberty smaller than they’d imagined, while others are taken

with her 305-foot size.



(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)


The Statue of Liberty Museum is open to all visitors. The three galleries tell her story through

film, interactive exhibits, and artifacts, including her original torch. What inspired the French to

gift Liberty Enlightening the World to the United States? What do the broken shackles at her feet represent? How was the colossal monument constructed? How has the concept of liberty

changed since the statue was erected in 1886? Visitors are inspired to learn about and consider

these and other questions.



(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)



Ellis Island literally changed the face of the United States. From 1892 – 1924, more than 12

million people were processed through this Renaissance Revival building. Today about 30% of

Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island.


(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)




Like the Statue of Liberty, the building itself is a beautiful structure to explore. The Ellis Island

Immigration Museum examines the country’s immigration history from the Colonial Era through

to today. Exhibits address the reasons why people left their homeland for a new world, the

struggles of traveling to the U.S., what was involved with being processed at Ellis Island, and the

experiences of new arrivals as they established life in America.




(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)


Ellis Island is also home to the American Family Immigration History Center. Research experts

help visitors discover their connection to Ellis Island. The 65-million-record Ellis Island

The passenger database is also available free online: https://www.statueofliberty.org/ellis-island/family-history-center/.






2. How did The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island become American symbols?

The Statue of Liberty was not always associated with immigration. When the statue was erected

in 1886, Ellis Island was not yet opened. Instead, this gift from the people of France was meant

to commemorate America’s centennial and the two countries’ long-standing relationship.

Unknown to many is that the Statue of Liberty also celebrated the abolition of slavery in the U.S., as symbolized by the broken shackles and chains at the statue’s feet.


(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)



Emma Lazarus penned The New Colossus to help raise money to construct the statue’s pedestal,

which the U.S. was responsible for. Her intent was not to raise support for immigration. The connection was made in the early 1900s, more than10 years after Lazarus’s death, when her friend Georgina 10 years after her death, when Lazarus’s friend Georgina Schuyler lobbied to memorialize the poet by having a plaque of the sonnet placed on the statue’s pedestal. Here is an audio clip of visitors reciting the poem: https://www.statueofliberty.org/discover/educational-resources.



(Image courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emmalazarusengraving.jpg)



3. Why should people care about preserving and maintaining The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island?

There are symbolic reasons: They are national, if not global, icons. The construction of each

reflects important times in our nation’s history. By understanding their purpose and relevance,

we better understand America.


(The image courtesy of Bettmann Archive/Getty Images. The image depicts An immigrant family on the dock at Ellis Island, N.Y., looking at New York's skyline while awaiting the ferry to take them there.)


There are practical reasons: Located in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island

are regularly impacted by the elements.



(Image courtesy of Shutterstock. The image depicts New York City and Ellis Island.)


There are social reasons: Each year more than four million people visit the monuments, among

them about two million international travelers and thousands of schoolchildren.




4. How can students and young professionals get involved with The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island?

Visit, of course! They can support The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, a non-profit

that collaborates with the National Park Service in one of America’s most successful public-

private partnerships. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan asked Lee Iacocca to raise private funds

for the historic restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The Foundation has since

created the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, constructed the Statue of Liberty

Museum developed and managed the Ellis Island Passenger Database, maintained museum

exhibits, and funded hundreds more projects on the islands.



(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)


Many organizations are involved with running and maintaining the monuments, each presenting

career opportunities: The National Park Service (history, public service, restoration, museum

management), The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (fundraising, marketing,

genealogy), Statue City Cruises (ferry/transportation services), Evelyn Hill Inc. (food and event

services), and many more.



(Image courtesy of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)


5. What is the future of The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island?

The monuments will remain relevant, and public interpretations will likely continue to evolve.

We’ll mark the statue’s 150th birthday in 2036. Specific plans are not yet underway, but the

milestone will inspire celebration. The Foundation and National Park Service will soon announce plans for a fundraising campaign to support renovations at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. You can follow the foundation at @StatueEllisFdn for updates.



(The image courtesy of Shutterstock. The image depicts the Statue of Liberty silhouette at sunset.)

Me on my first day of graduate school

Rachel Huss

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