My campaign to instill an interest in history in my grandchildren added a new chapter yesterday. Theresa, Lynn and I took a ferry out to visit Lady Liberty and Ellis Island. Before our trip Theresa (almost 10) read a novel about a boy who went on a field trip to Ellis Island and ended up meeting his own ancestor when he traveled back in time. Lynn (a first grader) devoured a book loaded with facts about the Ellis Island immigration center, and I found it amazing the amount of facts she soaked up and shared when we were there.
We would have liked to possess tickets to climb up inside the newly renovated Lady Liberty, but those were sold out until June. Perhaps I’ll have to come back and we can go again. Instead, we scooped up the recorded guides and setout to learn about this magnificent gift from the People of France that represents what America is all about for the millions of immigrants who gave up everything they once knew to come to America. Both girls were amazed to learn that in 1886 when Liberty Enlightening the World was first erected, she was the tallest thing in New York City. For kids born in an era of 100-story skyscrapers trying to wrap their minds around the fact that the tallest buildings in NYC were only five stories tall, but Lady Liberty was 22 stories tall was quite a stretch. How much more impressive this incredible statue must have been then! Theresa was pretty taken with the fact that even her fingernails are as long as an adult’s forearm.
Although I’d been out to visit this National Monument before, even I learned a few new things – most striking – around her feet are chains and a broken shackle that represent freedom and that her tablet is inscribed with the date of our own declaration of independence, July 4th 1776.
The great Hall where immigrants were processed.
Then it was back to the ferry for Ellis Island where we took a ranger guided tour, and Lynn shared more of the interesting facts she remembered from her book. She told us that immigrants were asked if they had the $25 required (as proof of self-sustainability,) but some lied as they had no money at all. Medical exams were brief and if you had any number of ailments, they would write a letter on your jacket in chalk. Certain nationalities were required to turn their jackets inside out and women were lot allowed to immigrate unless they had a husband with them or waiting for them. But even more impressive than the little details were the bigger figures.
From 1892 when the federal government took over restricting who could and could not immigrate into America until 1954 when the facility on Ellis Island was closed, over 12 million people came to our shores via this entry point and on their busiest day, April 17th 1907, officials processed 11,747 individuals. It is said that over 40% of Americans today can trace at least one ancestor back to Ellis Island.
Another ferry ride took us back to Manhattan. On landing we stopped to watch a talented group of brothers demonstrate some fantastic break dancing moves before heading north to visit the 9/11 World Trade Center memorial. For the girls, the square water pools that delineate where the buildings once stood were fun to check out, but having been born since that day, they are too young to feel the gut-deep horror of what that day must have been like for those who were there when the planes flew into the towers or the powerful emotions that fill the hearts of everyone else who remembers with sharp poignancy where they were and what they were doing with they first heard the news.
I’m not sure where our next history adventure will take us, but this bright spring day taught all three of us a few new things about what a blessing it is to be an American.