Good Reads: ‘American Passage’

Ellis Island occupies a hallowed place in imaginations — some might say, the Plymouth Rock for Americans who didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. This is a vast oversimplification (it leaves out a lot of Americans who didn’t land in either place). But it fueled enough fat family-saga novels to cement certain imagery firmly in place: the large, close-knit families struggling together across the gangplank into a new world; the arbitrary name changes by brusque inspectors; the triumphant journey from dirt-poor tenement to American-style riches in the suburbs.

Vincent J. Cannato’s American Passage is a history of Ellis Island that is well worth reading if your ancestors passed through it, or even if they didn’t. It  supplies a wealth of information about how the place began and, importantly, how it worked, starting with a detailed account of Ellis Island’s very different predecessor, Castle Garden.

Castle Garden was a state-run operation, originating in response to activism by immigrant-aid societies whose mission was to protect and aid immigrants — a mission that also propelled Castle Garden, at least in its early years. Ellis Island, by contrast, was a federal facility born in an age of increased resentment and apprehension at the surge of immigration at the end of the 19th century. Aiding and protecting took a back seat to quality control — the drive to ensure that only the fittest, strongest and most productive new arrivals made the cut.

Cannato writes supple, succinct prose, with an excellent eye for compelling historical examples — such as families separated, often forever, when one member was deemed too “feeble-minded” or physically infirm to be admitted. He illustrates with infuriating examples the lengths to which inspectors went to ensure that the immigrants’ characters were sufficiently elevated, a quest which predictably led to crass harassment: “Did he sleep with you on the boat?” asked one inspector who made “moral turpitude” his personal mission.

American Passage also dispels some cherished misconceptions about Ellis Island. Despite what hundreds of family stories say, Ellis Island inspectors did not change names to make them more “American-sounding”: “Name changes largely occurred either on the other side of the Atlantic, when steamship officials recorded names in their manifests, or after Ellis Island, when immigrants filled out naturalization papers or other official documents,” Cannato writes.

The narrative is full of similarly illuminating details, and ends with a meditation on Ellis Island’s slide into decay and neglect, followed by its return as a point of pilgrimage, a highly charged symbol of American aspirations. It’s a nice wrap-up to an excellent overview of the years in which the United States, and its immigration policy, reached a troubled maturity.


Despised and Dying: The Irishmen of Duffy’s Cut

In the newsbag yesterday came a striking update on what I can only regard as the cautionary tale of Duffy’s Cut.

“Duffy’s Cut” was a stretch of railroad line in the beautiful, hilly country of Chester County, 30 miles west of Philadelphia, Pa. It got its name from Philip Duffy, an Irish-American labor contractor who hired a crew of Irish immigrants to dig for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.

Researchers have long tried to find the grave of 57 laborers who died there when cholera ravaged the work site in  August 1832. As a railroad supervisor put it: “This man [Duffy] has been rather unfortunate … Nearly one half of his men died from Cholera.”

The quote is from The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut (2006), written by a team of researchers, including twin brothers William and Frank Watson. Duffy’s Cut has been a longstanding mission for the Watsons. (I got the book from my brother Jim, who lives in the area.)

The book’s meticulous evidence tells a gripping and awful story. Young, strong and dirt-poor, the Irishmen did what newcomers to America always do: the jobs nobody else wants. By all contemporary accounts, the Duffy’s Cut stretch was a particularly nasty job.

Cholera had broken out in Philadelphia the previous month. When it reached the railroad camp in the Chester countryside, hysteria trumped decency. The locals quarantined the sick workers at the site and, basically, left them. Nearly all died and were buried in an unmarked mass grave. Their families were never told what happened. The incident got short shrift in official communications, except as an explanation for construction delays. It lived on only in local memory and, as time passed, local folklore.

In 2009 the Watsons, after years of research and explorations, finally found a shin bone. Their team has now uncovered seven sets of remains — and a disturbing new twist: Four of the skulls show signs of trauma, including a possible bullet hole. As William Watson tells reporter Kathy Matheson, “This was much more than a cholera epidemic.” The Watsons now believe that many of the workers did die of cholera, but others may have been killed by vigilantes — perhaps from a mixture of fear of infection, plus contempt for marginalized, cheap laborers.

I find the story of Duffy’s Cut mesmerizing, in large part because I can’t understand how anybody could hear it and still think it’s OK to ignore the rhetoric of hate and prejudice that pulses through so many media outlets today. It’s repulsive. And it’s hypocritical. It boils down to remembering where you came from, and few of us were welcome when we got here.

Consider, for instance, the Sisters of Charity, the Roman Catholic nuns who were one of the few groups to provide competent, compassionate nursing in that long-ago epidemic, including to the victims at Duffy’s Cut. Glowing reports of their bravery were forgotten in the nativist riots that swept Philadelphia a dozen years later. The sisters’ seminary was burned to the ground, along with a number of Catholic churches and rectories.

So I guess it’s not surprising, what they’ve found at Duffy’s Cut. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when somebody decides that the wrong birthplace, or the wrong religion, can make a human … less than human.

Good Reads: Heirlooms or handcuffs?

Thanks to the ever-illuminating collection of links at Megan’s Roots World, I read How to Lose A Legacy, an insightful column by Ellen Lupton, who is a curator, a professor of graphic arts and, on the side, an incurably honest observer of human behavior.

Her essay is a humorous and wistful examination of the fine line between inheritance and junk. My cherished heirloom is someone else’s dust-gatherer.

And we all know that somewhere, someday that precious object might slip from our grasp and slide into the uncaring world of strangers. I love to poke around secondhand shops, but sometimes I find them depressing, too. So does Lupton. “That musty smell in your favorite antique store? It’s death warmed over, served with a splash of vintage vinegar,” she writes.

Of course, holding onto objects can turn a house into a prison — just look at any episode of Clean House or, heaven forbid, Hoarders. As Lupton puts it, there’s an “emotional bill” attached to our objects. Part of life is deciding how high a bill you want to pay, and for how long. Some people reach a point  where jettisoning those old objects is liberation. Some never do.

Still others hold on to their heirlooms while accepting the possibility that their children might not. That’s a powerful argument for sorting it all out before you go, lest an impatient relative throws out your wheat with your chaff. Still, the best we can do is try to find our heirlooms a good home and cross our fingers. What happens next is up to the heirs.

Good Reads: Memories of the Red Star Line

Author Mark Lamster interviews 97-year-old  Morris Moel, who might possibly be the oldest surviving immigrant to come to America on the Red Star Line, whose ships brought thousands and thousands of immigrants to the USA. (Although my Grandpa Rudroff was a Hamburg American Line guy himself.)

Moel’s memories of his 1922 odyssey make it clear that the immigrant’s journey could be not only uncomfortable, but downright hair-raising. He remembers reaching the Russian-Polish border:

“The Russian part of the border was all forest. And we were stopped. I heard rifles being cocked while we were walking. Russian soldiers. And the soldiers searched everyone and took everything that was valuable and said you’ve got to go back, and I guess they [the guides] knew another route so we got through. And the Polish border was absolutely free, but it was all snow. I was so little and my older brother dragged me across that border.”

And this was only the beginning! Read the whole thing, along with Lamster’s Wall Street Journal article on the formation of a Red Star Line museum in Antwerp.

Good Reads: ‘The Shadow Man’

In the years between my father’s death and the point at which my husband and I became parents, Father’s Day was an awkward pause in the calendar. After I was married, it was a bit of a relief to have a father-in-law who could receive happy returns — something to do, at last.

Mind you, Father’s Day was not associated with fond memories of great celebrations. My dad  was prickly about receiving gifts, and uncomfortable at the idea of a Father’s Day to-do. I think in his mind he was always supposed to be the provider, and he disliked being provided for. It raises interesting questions about how he might have dealt with (or not dealt with) the challenges of aging, but it didn’t come up because he was 59 when he died of a heart attack, leaving questions like that unanswered.

A haunting search in the archives.

One daughter with many unanswered questions about her father is the novelist Mary Gordon, whose father died when she was seven. It’s fair to say this was a defining event in Gordon’s life — probably the defining event — and she explores her landscape of loss in a beautifully written 1996 memoir, The Shadow Man.

Gordon’s book will strike a chord of empathy for many adult children who rediscover their parents as fellow humans, rather than the all-knowing beings called Mommy and Daddy. In Gordon’s case, things become very strange very fast as she begins to explore her father’s story as a researcher, not just an adoring daughter.

Family stories set in stone begin to crumble and re-assemble themselves. Gordon’s father, David, was a brilliant Harvard student whose Jewish family declared him dead after his conversion to Catholicism. One minor problem: The change of religions is the only fact that stands up to further examination. The more Gordon probes, the more she discovers that what she always believed about her father’s identity was a carefully constructed characterization, not a real person. (He wasn’t even named David.)

As for discovering the real person behind the stories, Gordon is only partly successful. Genealogy research comes into play in a long, fascinating section, “Tracking My Father: In the Archives.” Aided by a skillful genealogist, Gordon tries to trace her father’s footsteps in his Ohio hometown, where she discovers that the “Harvard student” actually dropped out of school in his teens to work for the railroad. The more facts she uncovers, the more bewildering the picture becomes. Sadly, Gordon’s mother, struggling with advanced Alzheimer’s, cannot provide any answers, either.

I have always loved this book, re-reading it to savor the lovely writing, but also to reflect on it as a cautionary tale. Genealogy is often a quest for connection, and on many levels, it succeeds in gratifying ways. But there are so many limits to what we can truly know with our research. Gordon’s is an extreme case, but an illuminating one.

Do Not Miss

In Search of the Meaning of “Mozingo.”

It’s a riveting series of articles by Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo about what happened when, after a lifetime of being asked about his surname, he decided to research it. The more he found out, the more he realized that a crucial aspect of his family’s past had been hidden for generations.

This audio-enhanced slide show is an excellent starting point, but the articles themselves are beautifully done, and well worth taking the time to read.

Lena Horne (And a Classic American Family)

The iconic American entertainer Lena Horne passed away on Sunday at age 92.

In a way, Horne’s bio was a precis of 20th-century American history. She lives forever in the mind’s eye as the beautiful, sultry  singer of “Stormy Weather,” but she also became a pioneering NAACP member at the age of two, signed up by her redoubtable grandmother Cora Calhoun Horne.  Her family was firmly rooted in an influential circle of well-to-do Brooklyn intellectuals, businesspeople and activists. Family friends included W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White and Paul Robeson. For much of her life, Horne carried the burden (and the torch) of being a standard-bearer in an age of change and turbulence for black Americans.

Lena Horne, described as one of the NAACP's "youngest members," as pictured in a 1919 edition of the Branch Bulletin. From "The Hornes: An American Family."

One of my favorite family history memoirs was written in 1986 by Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. Its title, The Hornes: An American Family, pretty much says it all. Lena’s grandfather, Edwin Horne, was the “son of the only-in-America union of an English adventurer and a Tennessee woodlands Native American,” as Buckley notes. His wife, Cora Calhoun, was born at the dawn of Reconstruction, the daughter of a slave owned by a nephew of John C. Calhoun (Andrew Jackson’s vice president and quintessential defender of slavery).

Edwin was one of those energetic people who seem incapable of not excelling at something — teaching, politics, newspaper publishing, owning a prosperous drugstore, becoming a high-level New York City Fire Department inspector. Cora was an early feminist, a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women as well as an early supporter of the NAACP. In Brooklyn they raised their family in a world of comfortable brownstones, “Smart Set” garden parties and debutante balls, but above all in an atmosphere of high standards and high achievement.

After her parents’ divorce, little Lena Horne was put in the care of grandmother Cora, who laid down the expectations in no uncertain terms: “When I take you to meetings, I want you to listen,” Cora would say. “When you speak, articulate clearly — don’t use slang … Don’t hunch your shoulders. Always look at the person you’re talking to.” Cora Calhoun Horne doesn’t sound like the sort to be overawed at having  a granddaughter in the entertainment business, but it stood to reason that in becoming an entertainer, Lena Horne would become the best. It was in the genes.

Buckley’s book was out of print for a while, then reissued in 2002. It’s well worth a read, not only for admirers of Lena Horne and her artistry, but for anyone interested in the history of a fascinating American family.