Immigrants remember Ellis Island

HACKENSACK, N.J. — HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Artemio Hernandez spends his days by the water. Every afternoon, the wiry and energetic 87-year-old Cuban takes the subway to Battery Park from his Upper West Side home to watch the ships pass by and to admire the Statue of Liberty.

"I go there to remember my younger days," said Hernandez, who likes to remember the days when he lived in the South Ferry section of Manhattan 60 years ago, after he first came to the United States as a stowaway, huddled in the hold of a passenger ship.


Hernandez came to the United States through Ellis Island. Actually, he came through Ellis Island 14 times from 1935 to 1940.

Determined to become an American, he sneaked onto passenger liners bound for the United States from Havana and when he tried to escape undetected after the ships landed, he invariably got caught. It was a common method of illegally entering the country. Then he would be taken to a dormitory on Ellis Island where they showed him Humphrey Bogart movies and he played cards and basketball with his fellow detainees.


"It was better than being on the street," Hernandez said.

Joined merchant marine

He finally came to America for good in the 1940s when he joined the U.S. merchant marine. He still carries his registration papers from that period, detailing every ship he worked on from 1946 to 1954. It's a job that took him around the world, from the battle zones of the Korean War to the shores of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Hernandez later became a cook, working everywhere from diners to Fifth Avenue bistros to the Paramus Park mall.

A fourth of Americans can trace their heritage through Ellis Island, but Hernandez illustrates the story of the approximately 180,000 Africans and blacks who passed through the island between 1892 and 1954 -- the year the island was shut as the entry point for all immigrants arriving in New York. Their experiences shed light on a little-known story about black life during the first half of the 20th century.

At the same time that blacks began to emigrate from the Caribbean in significant numbers, African-Americans started a migration from the sharecropping fields of the South to the factories of the North.

"We came together," said George Powell of Teaneck about the arrival of Southern blacks and black people from Caribbean to the cities of the North. Powell's mother, Mary Shaw Powell, came through Ellis Island in 1916 when she was 20-year-old woman from the island of St. Kitts.

African-Americans and West Indians moved to the North for the same reason, Powell said: to find a better life.

Discovering the truth


"When my mother came here, she was told that the streets were paved in gold and New York was low heaven," Powell recalled. She was disappointed when she first laid eyes on New York City and discovered the truth, he said.

While the majority of men and women who immigrated through Ellis Island came from Italy and Eastern Europe, the arrival of nearly 40,000 black people from the Caribbean at the turn of the century transformed black New York.

"Most people don't know there was a significant migration from the Caribbean," said Professor Irma Watkins-Owens of Fordham University. She said the infusion of black foreigners helped shape the Harlem Renaissance, a vibrant period widely recognized as a cultural, musical, and artistic explosion in the capital of black America. People from the Caribbean made up a quarter of the African-American population of New York by the 1920s, she said.

"The famous Harlem we know was composed of multiethnic blacks," Watkins-Owens said.

The Caribbean migration included famous men such as Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican who formed the United Negro Improvement Association. The group became the largest black organization in the nation by the early 1920s. Other figures of the period included writers such as Jamaican-born Claude McKay, the Harlem Renaissance-era writer who described his journey through Ellis Island in his memoir, "A Long Way From Home."

"At last the ship was moored and I came down to the pavement. Ellis Island: doctors peered in my eyes, officials scrutinized my passport and the gates were thrown open," McKay wrote of his arrival after first traveling to England.


Historical attention

Historians are just beginning to examine the journey of blacks who came through Ellis Island and want to expand its multihued canvas of immigration to include people of African descent.

"What does Ellis Island mean?" asked Paul Donnelly of the Immigration Reform Coalition of Washington, D.C. "It means anybody can come to the United States and become American."

Donnelly recalls working with Barbara Jordan, the former Democratic congresswoman who headed President Clinton's U.S. Commission for Immigration Reform in the early 1990s. Donnelly said Jordan told him it was time for blacks to reclaim the image of Ellis Island to honor the memory of the black immigrant.

"It's our history, and we're taking it back," Donnelly said Jordan told him.

Immigration and race have always been intertwined. The nation's first immigration law was the Anti-Slave Act of 1825, which banned the importation of slaves, Donnelly said. Later federal laws limited or banned outright the arrival of people from non-European countries and colonies populated by people of color.


Some black immigrants stopped in New York briefly before continuing on to Canada. For example, when the French West Indies ship SS Korona stopped at Ellis Island in 1911, it carried several dozen black women from the Caribbean bound for Montreal to work as domestics.

Most of the immigrants came from the British islands in the Caribbean, such as Barbados, Jamaica and Bermuda, Watkins-Owens said. Many who came to the United States settled in Harlem and parts of Brooklyn.

"They clustered together as much as they could," Watkins-Owen said.

Large-scale immigration from Africa and the Caribbean occurred after World War II and in the 1960s when the United States relaxed restrictions against the arrival of immigrants from Africa, Asia and South America. Nearly a half-million Africans came to the United States in the 1950s alone, according to INS statistics.

The Ellis Island museum makes a concerted effort to preserve the voices of African-Americans who came through Ellis Island. Through the museum's Oral History Project, it has recorded the stories of about a dozen immigrants from the Caribbean, including Hernandez, who told his story to the museum in 1998.

"We do it to document firsthand accounts of those who immigrated during what was the greatest migration of people in world history," said Janet Levine, an oral historian at Ellis Island.


Vernon Nicolls, a longtime Englewood, N.J., resident who moved to Florida a few years ago, was one whose story was recorded by historians. He came through Ellis Island when he was 6 years old in 1915 after leaving his native Barbados to live in Brooklyn with his parents, who had immigrated to the United States several years earlier.

"All I can remember of the boat was swinging on a swing," Nicolls told the Ellis Island Oral History project in 1994. "I remember it was a small boat."

He said at the time he didn't realize the significance of his journey.

"It just meant I was going to another home and I was going to ride a boat," he said.

Hernandez has no regrets about his decision to come to the United States. As a seaman he got to travel extensively.

"I went around the world," he said. But the tradeoff is that he cannot go back to his native Cuba in his old age, because the United States will not send his Social Security check to a country with which it does not have diplomatic relations.