In March this year I had the pleasure of visiting Ellis Island – America’s former immigration portal and home to my great-grandparents (William and Alice) for seven weeks during 1926. Walking through the empty rooms and hallways, knowing that my ancestors had once done the same, was a surreal yet enlightening experience and one that I hope to elaborate on at a later date. For now, here are a few images of one of New York’s most interesting historical hotspots as well as a re-posting of Alice’s letter written before her death in 1961.
All content written by Alice Grant (née Brinkworth), 1887 – 1961.
My husband and I had lived very happily in Canada for several years. We had gone immediately after the war, while food was still being rationed at home. Our most vivid first impression was the wonderful window display of goods and the brilliant street lights; we used to go out as gleeful as children just to see the lights and the well-filled shops.
Canada was indeed a land of plenty and of opportunities, but as the years passed there came an intense longing for the Old Country and we sold our home and returned to ‘settle’. But as often happens, the reality in England is very different from the dreams of it an ocean away. The call of the West once more proved irresistible and we planned again to try our luck, only this time we had the United States in view as our destination. This brought us in touch with the immigration laws; we found that we must enter on the Quota – that Quota, it meant a year before our turn came and we didn’t want to wait so we conceived the idea (which seemed pretty good to us) of travelling to Canada and by virtue of our previous stay, gain entry to the States as Canadians.
Off we went, only to find on arrival that we were still up against the same old Quota – it was birthplace, not citizenship that counted – and it was still a year before our turn would come to enter the land of our hopes. The word Quota haunted us. There we were, stranded with a family, sitting on top of the world. There was no prospect of work at that time just where we were, but we knew that plenty awaited us. It seemed that the only thing to do was to make a dash for it non-quota, this was easier said than done as the border is watched pretty close for aliens being bootlegged in. Having a family and baggage, we could not just ‘jump the border’ as many thousands do, our only hope was to get a visitors’ permit and then trust to luck and stay on.
The American Consul could give no permission, it was a case of satisfying the immigration officials on the way, so we arranged to travel just before Christmas with the avowed object of spending the holiday with relatives in Ohio. We chose to travel by the evening train and prayed that the officer we had to meet and conquer had had a good supper and had not quarreled with his wife just before going on duty. The fates were kind, he was very amiable and almost apologised for having to prove our story, we seemed so honest. But after we had admitted that we had no home in Canada, no bank account there, no position to return to, but quite a quantity of luggage in the van, he said perhaps we had better get off the train at Blackrock and register.
The conductor came along and gave us our tickets back, including our sleeping berths in case we were not allowed to continue our journey and out we were put at 9:30pm with the temperature below zero – at least the weather was below zero, for myself I was both hot and cold, what an anxious time it was, although we were treated very fairly and could not complain.
My husband and I were interviewed separately and questioned fully as to our life history and any possible longing of ours to settle in the States. Our stories were compared and on payment of head tax we got our permit, but for one month only. Still, there we were on the next train for Buffalo where we caught up our original Pullman and occupied our original berths. The passengers who watched us off at Blackrock smiled a welcome when we turned up again at Buffalo – over the border.
Then followed a period of calm in a small New England tour, but always there were the storm clouds just ahead. It seemed as if no matter what we tried to do the eternal question cropped up – have you your citizen papers and where and when did you enter this country?
We found life very interesting. At first it seemed as if American home life was entirely a matter of coffee, pie, chocolate cake and fried potatoes, one or other was always on the menu. To some of the natives we were the first English folk they had met and we got mutual amusement over comparing words and ways. I was asked one day if it wasn’t very dreadful to have to live under a King. American husbands are supposed to exist entirely to give their wives a good time, but when I saw American wives standing frying pancakes and sausages for breakfast till all the men folk had perhaps averaged fifteen or twenty each (pancakes not sausages) before she sat down herself, I said I preferred my hubby to stick to his English early cup of tea – which came as a great joke to them – and his egg and bacon.
Every family had a car and owned their own home, but I held a unique position – I was the only person in two years that made use of the community library, this is an absolute fact.
Time went on and still we were left undisturbed until we began to feel secure and yet never safe or really content in a country where we could never claim or obtain any civil rights owing to our illegal stay.
At last discovery came and eventually we found ourselves at Ellis Island, New York Harbor.
We were seven weeks on Ellis Island while our case was being decided at Washington.
The gateway to America – Ellis Island – watching a stream of immigrants from all corners of the earth, all ages, all colours and all languages, seeking entry into a country that we were waiting to be turned out of. It was the experience of a lifetime.
I had the bedroom next to the one that had been occupied by Vera Lady Cathcart on her much self-advertised detention there. I may say in passing, that while Ellis Island liked the lady personally, they felt that they had been made the goat to gain publicity for her, but of course that is her life story, not mine.
Life on Ellis Island in the Deporting Division was monotonous, yet interesting. Husbands were allowed to visit wives from 3 to 5 daily, but mine was taken sick and removed to hospital and I only saw him for one hour once a week. A matron took me on my visit and to every guard we passed she said, “one to hospital” so that I was kept track of.
We of course were termed ‘warrant cases’, we had violated the immigration laws and were constantly in the charge of a guard and matron. We were counted up to bed at 6.30 at night and counted down at 6.30 in the morning. The days were passed as best we could, we had a fair amount of personal liberty being able to walk in the corridor and visit each other’s rooms. There were numerous social workers who tried to befriend all, to welcome the coming/speed the parting guest. I mention them with grateful remembrance of many kindly words and actions they tried to make us forget the bars at the windows. There was a kindergarten for the children and there were many happy hours even on Ellis Island – a concert Tuesday night, pictures Friday.
We went on the lawn for one hour’s fresh air daily, but I seldom got much as I had to take my family out in batches, drop one lot at the foot of the stairs and rush back for the next. I couldn’t have them ready waiting as we never knew when we were to go out in case we arranged an escape.
I shared a day room with four more, and merry tales they told, we were English speaking together. Where is she now, the lady who had jumped the border from Canada five times and deported each time? Or the little girl who used to Charleston to us? Or the Syrian maid who came to my bedroom one night in a white robe and towel turbanned head, fresh from a bath, all her garments washed out, wanting to spread them on the bed-ends in my room to dry during the night?
Where is she now, the lady who had jumped the border from Canada five times and deported each time?
I wonder how the sad little Italian woman is faring. She came in without a passport and had since married an American citizen and was just most in need of a husband’s care and her own home, but back to Italy she went alone and must remain there a year and a day before she can return and her husband claim her in the country.
Seven weeks in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, even that comes to end and once more we were on board a train making for across the border – going out the way we came in. A guard and matron took us, not in uniform of course. Once more we travelled at night and when dawn came our eyes fell on Canadian soil and we saw the dear old Union Jack, we were aliens no longer, but not yet free. We were locked in a stateroom on our liner at Montreal till the boat sailed and then we were free, free to have the children running in the sunshine and get back health and after all that had passed, content to be sailing toward the Old Country once more.
England looked lovely in June and yet perhaps once more we may want to leave her, but rest assured it will never again be non-quota.