A friend and reader has brought to my attention a remarkable article in The Washington Post showing the faces of “the old country.” It has been estimated that approximately 40% of the population of the United States can trace its ancestry back to the 12 million people who entered America through Ellis Island in New York Harbor. It raises the old cliche that we are a nation of immigrants. But the true story is much more than one of numbers, As rich as America has been in natural resources, its greatest asset has been, and continues to be, it immigrants. These people came and come to the United States to build a future and their future is the future of the country.
These photos were taken by Augustus Sherman, who was both an amateur photographer and the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 until 1925. He photographed people coming through in their native costumes, while they were the greenest of “green horns.” The photographs were published in National Geographic in 1907 and for many years they hung in the federal Immigration Service headquarters in Manhattan. They are now archived in the the New York Public Library.
There are several points to be made about the images themselves. There was a certain seriousness to the picture process, or was it fear of rejection. The pride of the sitters rings through. And in composite they are a definitive monument to America’s diversity.It is hard to pick a favorite among these images. But I have chosen as Figure 1 this stunningly expressive photograph of a beautiful Guadeloupean woman in native dress. All of the elements are there: pride and just a hint of a smile