Angel Island, Ellis Island, and American Dreams
Marjorie N. Feld
In the summer of 2022 my Boston-based family vacationed in California, and the highlight was a visit to Angel Island, sometimes known as the “Ellis Island of the West Coast.” The two places are analogized because both Angel Island and Ellis Island served as points of entry for immigrants entering the United States, and both are sites of tremendously important historical memory. Now that I have visited both islands, though, I can say that the analogy fails because of the vast distance between them. The distance to which I refer is not about the thousands of miles that separate New York harbor from the San Francisco Bay; it’s about the wide gap in resources allocated to them. Using this measurement, even two sites that are very close in physical proximity can be quite far apart. And if these are historical sites that possess essential stories of the past—as they are in this case—then that distance offers us a crystal-clear demonstration of whose stories are truly valued at a given moment. Recognizing and remedying such a gap in resources, then, sends a clear message that all places have valuable stories.
I first thought about this distance twenty years ago when, doing research for my second book, I visited two archives in a single day and the distance between the two gave me great pause. Both archives are located on the island of Manhattan, New York, about six miles apart in physical distance but much further in terms of the resources allocated to them. The first was the gleaming, granite-and-marble flagship of the New York Public Library (NYPL) on Fifth Avenue, the shining star of the NYPL system with its vast library and archival collections; the second was the NYPL’s then-under-resourced research library in Harlem, the tremendously important Schomburg Center for Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard, the site of essential civil rights protests, the founding site of the American Negro theatre, and home to one of the world's largest collections of books and archival materials related to the global African diaspora.
I was a white researcher who needed access to both sites for my work, and on that day I grieved the vast distance between them. A few years later, my college hosted Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, at that time Director of the Schomburg Center, as a campus speaker. After his brilliant speech, I told him about the journey I had taken to the two sites, and we shared a solemn moment of acknowledgement. He then informed me that his and others’ longtime, heroic advocacy had moved the city to action: the Schomburg was to receive a “much-needed” renovation.When I taught a class on and in Manhattan/Manahatta history in 2019, I was pleased to see that the Schomburg, too, now had a gleaming face to show the public and more up-to-date resources within its walls. The distance between the two sites had diminished. Visiting the Fifth Avenue NYPL and the Harlem NYPL today makes it far clearer that both contain stories central to understanding the history of New York City and the United States more broadly. Both are accessible in order to capture the public’s attention and imagination.
This summer, I felt precisely that same sense of pause on the other side of the continent, when I thought about the distance between Angel Island and Ellis Island, about whose stories are valued, and about the essential lessons all places possess. I grieved over broader differences in my experiences visiting these places. The resources allocated to both sites offer a crystal-clear demonstration of whose stories are valued and which lessons we still must learn.
I will begin with the origin stories that bring these two together, as both were built on stolen land: on Angel Island lived members of the Miwok nation; on Ellis Island, members of the Lenni Lenape. From there, the differences between the two islands are quite easy to see, as logistics, history, and location divide them in innumerable ways. Off the coast of Manhattan, Ellis Island was open for sixty-two years (1892-1954), processed 12 million immigrants largely but not only from Europe, and its present-day ferry ride stops also at the adjacent island of the Statue of Liberty. In contrast, Angel Island was open for 30 years (1910 to 1940), processed one million immigrants mainly from Asia, and is isolated out in the Bay. I learned a tremendous amount about the similarities and differences between Ellis Island and Angel Island from a 2022 informative talk given by staff members of both sites in a program co-hosted by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, Angel Island State Park, and the Statue of Liberty- Ellis Island Foundation in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month.
I have visited Ellis Island many times, most recently when I taught my class in Manhattan in 2019. Because of its proximity to the Statue of Liberty, any visit to Ellis Island is billed as a celebration of the American dream; this language suffuses its publication materials and writings. Brightly lit and gleaming, Ellis Island is marked by flags and other symbols that are meant to evoke pride in this “Gateway to America.” Resplendent and patriotic, championed by public figures and by all the resources dedicated to studying the American stories of those who passed through it, Ellis Island is nearly synonymous with the American dream.
Among those American stories and dreams is my own. My grandmother passed through Ellis Island in 1910, at age two, with her family from Warsaw, Poland. They were healthy, gender conforming, and from a national/racial group—Polish Jews—that was at that moment welcomed and not excluded. They proceeded though the immigration process rapidly and were able to reunite with other family members in Pennsylvania soon after. She became one of the few women dentists in the United States in the 1930s, owned her home with my grandfather, and paid for her two children’s college educations (one was my father’s). When I celebrate Ellis Island, then, I celebrate my grandmother, for I know that the street on which she lived in Poland became part of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. Her family’s immigration kept my family safe and made my existence possible.
The stories of my grandmother and others who passed through, including the small number of people who were detained and deported: all are American stories. The infrastructure and public visibility of Ellis Island—its beauty, highly publicized and accessible tours, its pomp and ceremony—honors those stories, and further, it prompts its visitors to see all its stories as a central part of American history.
Far away from Ellis Island, in every sense, lies Angel Island. The immigration station there was built on the exclusion of one national group, those originating in China, and prejudice and racism against Asian people generally. Detainment and detention rates were far higher than for those who arrived via Ellis Island. The interrogations and medical examinations were intensely difficult and intrusive. All of this was because American officials saw people from Asia, especially those from China, as suspect, as dirty, and as an economic threat to “Americans’” wellbeing. Even after serving as an immigration station, the island housed Japanese-Americans who were on their way to internment camps during World War II. Angel Island is a living testament, then, to the history of American exclusion, xenophobia, and racism. As I toured its buildings, I noted that it could easily be a site of mourning given the horror of those forced to pass through this gateway. And let me be clear: the austerity of the Island—the sparseness of the barracks, the transcriptions of the interrogations—all convey that horror.
Yet I also saw the island as a testament to resilience and beauty, to strength in the face of oppression. For on the walls, in Chinese and other languages, immigrants gave expression to their emotions throughpoetry. Their poems give voice to their sadness, anger, and grief, their hopes and fears, their longing for family and for home. Through the windows they could see spectacular views of the mainland, and so they wrote poetry about their own American dreams. Each poem carries with it a story, some of them unfolding just as my grandmother was arriving on the other side of the continent.
Unlike Ellis Island, though, no presidents have attended ribbon cutting ceremonies at Angel Island. It is simply not on the map for many tourists, and indeed many historians I know who live in the Bay Area have not visited. Only a few ferries travel across the bay to Angel Island each day, and the journey from the ferry to the Immigration Station is only accessible to able bodied guests capable of hiking up steep hills. Signage is sparse. Dr. Erika Lee and Dr. Judy Yung’s Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, a marvelous book which I have used in my courses, was the only book for sale, and in need of a bookstore to showcase its contents.
Angel Island lacks these infrastructural resources and public visibility, and my family felt keenly that its isolation reflects a turning away from its stories, isolating its lessons from a broader understanding of U.S. history.
Certainly we cannot celebrate or emulate the xenophobia on which Angel Island was built. Instead, we need to reckon with those forces that are still so powerful in American life as we live through still more chapters in xenophobia and anti-Asian racism. At the same time, we can and should celebrate the incredible resilience of those who passed through Angel Island, encountered these forces, and made important and diverse contributions to the United States. We should know their names, and we should know their valuable stories. I feel certain there is another grandchild in the United States, someone whose grandmother, like mine, immigrated in 1910, and at Angel Island had a far more harrowing journey; I want to know the name of this person who, like me, credits her grandmother’s journey with her own safe existence.
So here, readers, is my American dream. Soon, my campus will host a speaker, an esteemed scholar of the Asian American experience. She and I will share a moment of solemn acknowledgement about the distance between Ellis Island and Angel Island. Then she will tell me that Angel Island will soon undergo a much-needed renovation to lessen that distance and bring scores of visitors and researchers and resources to its doors. The stories of the grandmothers and others who passed through Angel Island will be held up for recognition and study. And its lessons, too, will be understood as an essential part of U.S. history.
Those who long inhabited its land, those who arrived against their own will, those who passed through gateways with ease or tremendous difficulty: all American stories possess value. When we work to equalize the resources dedicated to both islands and make them equally accessible, they will capture the public’s attention and imagination. And we will send a crystal-clear signal that both Ellis Island and Angel Island contain valuable stories, lessons the United States is still learning.
Marjorie N. Feld is Professor of History at Babson College in Massachusetts, where she teaches courses on U.S. social history, labor, gender, and food justice. She is the author of Lillian Wald: A Biography and Nations Divided: American Jews and the Struggle Over Apartheid. She is at work on a manuscript entitled No Consensus: American Jewish Critics of Zionism.