Hofstra Pulse Magazine

Ellis Island and the immigrants that made America

By Dana Gibbs

 

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The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened on January 1, 1892. Over 12 million immigrants were

processed here during the influx of immigrants in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries.

Photo: Dana Gibbs

“We just came to see some history,” said Casandra Zielinski as she walked around the “Silent Voices” exhibit on the third floor of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with her husband and children.

Indeed, on Ellis Island you’ll find copious amounts of history. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is a relic that holds the history of over 12 million immigrants who came to the United States from countries far and near between 1894 and 1954.

The history doesn’t end at Ellis Island. Immigrants that successfully made it through the island have contributed immensely to American society; from their talents, cultural traditions, all the way down to the work of their bare hands.

“A lot of buildings that we have in the U.S. today were built by immigrants,” noted

Tiffany, a 27-year-old visitor from Dallas, Texas as she sat on a bench on the Ground Floor of

the Ellis Island Immigrant Museum.

Just walk through the streets of New York City, and you’ll be exposed to the architecture over which immigrants labored. The construction of the Empire State building in 1930, for example, required the help over 3,400 European immigrant laborers. The construction of the GE building at Rockefeller Center (30 Rockefeller Plaza) also involved he work of immigrant laborers in 1932.

As well as awe inspiring architecture, immigrants have contributed innovative traditions

and customs such as cuisines, music, and holiday celebrations to the United States. Italian,

Jewish, and German restaurants pop up on almost every corner of New York City, thanks to

the immigrants who preserved the dishes that are dear to their homelands. Irish and Scottish

immigrants brought much of their musical traditions to the U.S., which have influenced today’s folk and bluegrass genres. Even the Columbus Day Parade, the largest parade in New York City was started in the U.S. by Italian immigrant Generoso Pope, and is now observed as a national holiday.

Even though we don’t know all the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island—those

who helped develop the quintessential “American” culture that we enjoy today—only a few

became well known. Actor Charlie Chaplin came to the U.S. from Britain through Ellis Island in October of 1912 as a vaudeville performer. He later became a filmmaker and co-founded what is known today as the United Artists Media Group in 1919. The man behind the Chef Boyardee brand, Italian immigrant Ettore “Hector” Boiardi, arrived at Ellis Island aboard the French ship La Lorraine, and was granted entry to the U.S. in 1914.

Fashion designer Pauline Trigere, an immigrant from France who came through Ellis Island in 1937, is often credited for creating the wardrobe styles worn by Patricia Neal in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The list goes on.

Some of these immigrant histories have been studied extensively and recorded through art and literature. In an exhibit called Life line – filo della vita, B. Amore, an Italian-American artist, educator and writer, researched and documented the history of Italian immigrants who came through Ellis Island. The exhibit was on display on Ellis Island from 2000-2001. The exhibit lives on in book form as Life line – filo della vita, published in 2006. Amore used three years worth of research;including diary entries, old letters, photographs, interviews and research into the Ellis Island Oral History Project, to convey the stories of Italian immigrants that lived during the 20th century.

Amore’s paternal grandfather, Antonio D’Amore, emigrated to the U.S. from

Montefalcione, Italy in 1902. When he arrived, he settled in Boston with people he knew

from Italy. Amore writes in her book, “Cousin Gerald told me that Papa Nonno went to work

every morning carrying his pickaxe and lantern and that he helped dig the Harbor Tunnel in

Boston and foundations for Harvard University.” Her maternal grandmother, Concettina De

Lorio, emigrated from Montefalcione, Province of Avellino, a town just outside of Naples. De

Lorio attended American International College, becoming one of the few women who went to

college in the early 20th century. She started a dressmaking business, her designs imitations

of Parisian fashion. De Lorio designed and sewed her own wedding dress, and hoped that her

granddaughter B. Amore would be able to wear it some day. She also made dresses for the

Brahmin ladies on Beacon Hill, as well as for Mrs. Eldredge, one of her professors at AIC. She

even designed her own wedding dress.

“She was a very entrepreneurial woman,” says Amore. “Nonna was the head of the household.”

D’Amore believes that immigrants bring “a tremendous energy to American society.”

For many, the three-week journey across the Atlantic Ocean was tough, but if they hadn’t

braved it, America would be a totally different place. “It took tremendous courage for these

immigrants to leave their homelands,” says Amore, “and I think they are what keeps American society invigorated.”

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