Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears

First Ellis Island Immigrant Station, built in 1892

The cluster of islands, including what would become known as Ellis Island, were known to the Algonquin as “Oyster Islands.” Ellis Island was know as “Little Oyster Island,” despite being the second largest. Though probably not used for permanent settlement, the island was still considered Native American territory, so when the Dutch wanted to obtain rights to it in 1630, they made a purchase agreement. The island changed hands several times and began serving other purposes. From the mid-1700s through at least the 1830s, it became a place for public executions, including “Pirate Anderson,” who was publicly hanged in 1765.

In 1774 Samuel Ellis purchased the island and it was re-named for him. The island passed to his heirs until New York City bought it in 1808. It continued to be used for military purposes to varying degrees, until 1890 when it began to be used primarily for immigration. The island changed dramatically as the federal government built new facilities to accommodate the thousand of immigrants who came through the port, including buildings for medical care, processing, and housing.

Until 1875, immigration was handled by each state, except for minor quotas. That year, the federal government enacted the first exclusion law, barring criminals and prostitutes. In 1882, it added “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” In 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Law, aimed at Chinese laborers, made it “unlawful to import aliens for labor under contract.” These restrictions, and the difficulty that states had to care for sick or indigent migrants led immigration to become centralized under the federal government. New York’s state immigration facility at Castle Garden was deemed inadequate, and a new location was sought. Opposition to using Bedloe’s Island, where the Statue of Liberty stood, Ellis Island was chosen in 1890.

The site official opened on January 1, 1892 and seven hundred immigrants landed on the island. The first was Annie Moore from Ireland. She arrived with her two brothers to join their parents in New York, the event immortalized in the ballad “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears.” However, the song was among many misconceptions about Annie Moore. She was seventeen, not fifteen, and instead of moving to Texas, she spent the rest of her life in New York, though this was not corrected until 2006.

Over the next several decades, the site grew, as more land and buildings, including dormitories, a greenhouse, and hospital were added. As immigration decreased in the 1920s, the site changed in the 1930s to a detention center. It officially closed on November 12, 1954. In 1965, it the National Park Service designated it as a national park, rehabilitating the main immigration building and landscape.

Many books, both fiction and non-fiction include immigrants’ experiences at Ellis Island. Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words explores immigration across Europe, Chinese immigration in New York City’s Chinese Community, though most Asian immigrants arrived on the west coast through Angel Island, and parts of black immigration in Caribbean Americans in New York City 1895-1975. Black immigrants came from the Caribbean, and from the southern United States.

Some of the well-known people who passed through Ellis Island include Antonius Dvorak, who arrived on September 27, 1892. He wrote “The New World Symphony” while serving as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892-5. The them from the “Largo” portion of the symphony was adapted into “Goin’ Home” by Dvorak’s pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote the lyrics in 1922. W.E.B Du Bois, African-American scholar and civil rights activist, passed through Ellis Island on March 18, 1924 when he returned to the United States from France. Lin Yu’Tang, a Chinese scholar who popularized classic Chinese literature in the West came to attend university. When he returned to the United States in 1931, he was briefly detained for inspection, and he was nearly deported for his leftist views.

“I will let the world see sir what justice there is when it is govern by the Race prejudice men!!!”

The class on the Silk Road that I took during my first year at Smith College was my first non-Euro or American-centric history course. My final paper was on the history of Jewish settlement in Kaifeng China during the Song dynasty (960-1279).

In my junior year, following my Narratives of Interment course the previous year, I took an Asian American Literature course that broadened the scope of literature from World War II era Japanese-American literature to Asian-American literature that spanned over two centuries. We read everything from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Sui Sin Far’s (pen name of Edith Maude Eaton, who was half-Chinese, half-English) short stories, Le Thi Diem Thuy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart. This class was only the second time that I was immersed in non-white authors. Even my Japanese history classes included books such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Liza Dalby’s Geisha were by white authors. This class was the reason I won a trivia contest naming Asian-American writers while I was a student at UMass Amherst several years later. The hosts had to look up several names on my list. During that class, my professor explained that Chinese had pretended to be Mexican to get into the United States. I didn’t learn details until graduate school.

While getting my Masters, I studied U.S. imperialism, foreign relations and race relations, including US-China relations, though with more of a focus on Chinese immigration and anti-Chinese sentiment. The negative portrayals of Asians goes back to Samuel Gorge Morton’s pioneer work on cranial measurements became crucial to biological determinism. In 1839, Morton wrote that the Chinese “have been compared to the monkey race whose attention is perpetually changing from one object to another.” Morton was not the only one to use such descriptions. Missionaries, diplomats and traders described the Chinese as “deprived and vicious,” and “on a level with the rudest tribes of mankind.” They were “pagan savages,” “idolatrous savages,” and “almond-eyed heathens”; a nation of “children or idiots” who lived in “imbecile world”; “a poor, miserable, dwarfish race of inferior beings.”

Diplomatic relations between the US and China began in 1846, when Commodore James Biddle negotiated a “treaty of amity and commerce” with China, shortly before attempting to do the same with Japan. The amity between the two countries would be short-lived. A century after Captain Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to have contact with native Hawaiians, missionaries who had flocked to the island were looking for a way to profit off the land. They decided to cultivate sugar, which the native population had been growing. Amos Starr Cooke and Samuel Castle, former missionaries created Castle & Cooke which would grow to become one of the world’s largest sugar producers. However, to protect American growers, the US government  levied tariffs on imported sugar. Hawaiian planters urged the government to make Hawaii part of the United States so that they would not lose money. The government refused to do so and also did not agree to the planters’ next proposition of a free-trade agreement. The Hawaiian planters eventually came up with a solution: grant the United States exclusive rights to create commercial and military bases in Hawaii. President Grant approved the treaty in 1876, turning Hawaii into an American protectorate. Native Hawaiians protested the treaty, but the United States military put down the protest.

The sugar industry quickly exploded, from 21 million pounds in 1876 to 225 million pounds in 1890. However, as neither the white nor native Hawaiian population wanted to work in the fields, the plantation owners had to look elsewhere. Eventually they began importing Japanese and Chinese laborers who came by the thousands after a reciprocity treaty was signed. The 1890 census, recorded 40,612 native Hawaiians, 27,391 Chinese and Japanese laborers and 6,220 Americans, Britons, Germans, French, Norwegians, and Hawaiian-born whites.

Things were completely different on the mainland. By the mid-nineteenth century, anti-Asian sentiment, mainly directed at the Chinese, was rising, especially in California, which by the end of the 1860s was “violently anti-Chinese”. Anti-Japanese sentiment had was not very high, as one newspaper editorial declaring that, “‘the objections raised against the Chinese…cannot be alleged against the Japanese…They have brought their wives, children and…new industries among us.’”


Eventually, anti-Chinese sentiment led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. To circumvent the law, Chinese began entering through Canada or pretending to be Mexican or Native, or claimed birthright citizenship after 1898. The American government imposed many other restrictions on incoming Chinese, even those who were returning American citizens, often detaining them for weeks upon arrival, including young children. Not only that, but Chinese immigrants were subjected to lengthy questioning by three sets of officials which would be prolonged if the answers did not match. No other national group was treated so harshly by immigration authorities, and some Chinese referred to U.S. immigration officials as “gestapo.” In 1879, in the midst of a fear of Yellow Peril, the new state constitution of California denied suffrage to “all natives of China, idiots, and insane persons.” Three years later, all further Chinese immigration to the US was prohibited. These restrictions would last well into the twentieth century.


Anti-Chinese laws extended even to children as they grew to school age. In 1858, as calls for segregated began in San Francisco. The following year, thirty Chinese parents petition the Board of Education to open a primary school. Rev. William Speer offered the basement of the Chinese Presbyterian Mission House, which became the Chinese School. The school closed four months later for lack of funds, and over the next decade would re-open several times, due to lack of funds and poor attendance, but ultimately failed. 

In 1860, the California Legislature passed a law that “Negroes, Mongolians and Indians shall not be allowed into public schools.” Any school that allowed non-white students to attend would be penalized, but there was no requirement to provide public schools for non-white children. The attitude toward the Chinese, on one hand was that they were unassimilable, but on the other hand, educating Chinese children would allow them to assimilate and become permanent residents. In 1870, the law changed once more, to only segregate schools for Native American and black children. As a result, the following year, the San Francisco school board ended its support for the Chinese School, after the superintendent James Denman cited the law as a reason that the Chinese School was no longer needed. However, the law made no mention of Chinese students who were not allowed to attend public schools.

In the 1880s, California passed a law that entitled all children to a public education, but the San Francisco School Board prevented Chinese children from attending until Mamie Tape’s family went to court. Their attorney, William Gibson argued that Mamie’s exclusion violated the 1880 California school law and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Judge Maguire agreed, as did the California Supreme Court when the school board appealed. 

But their victory was short-lived. Superintendent Mouldertook advantage of the fact that the ruling did not undermine the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, and therefore, Chinese students could still be prevented from attending all-white schools. The Chinese Primary School opened in April, 1885. Despite the law, most Chinese-American students were attending integrated public schools in San Francisco by 1920, the law was not repealed until 1947.

After World War I, China was part of the Paris Peace Conference. During the meeting, the Japan proposed three additions to the League’s draft Covenant, known as the Racial Equality Bill. The proposals “concerned racial equality, the nature of territorial mandates, and international labor regulations.” Many Japanese immigrants, including 49,000 in southern California appealed to the delegation that “‘the abolition of discrimination based on racial differences is vital to the establishment of permanent world peace,” and they pleaded for the delegation to “take appropriate action upon this matter.’ ” Predictably, the Japanese delegation met with significant resistance, especially from Great Britain and the United States, which saw the proposal as “an unspoken demand for increased Japanese immigration…[which would] immediately motivate other Asian nations to demand that their immigration restrictions likewise be eased… [leading to] grave domestic political problems”. When the sixteen votes were tallied, eleven were in favor, including France and Italy with two, and Greece and China with one vote each. However, Wilson, Chair of the Commission, rejected the proposal because it had not had unanimous support, despite the fact that unanimity had not applied to any other decision made during the conference, including Wilson’s proposal to protect the Monroe Doctrine which had been passed by a majority vote shortly before. 

Although Wilson had voted against the Racial Equality Bill, it was the US government that brought up the issue of its anti-Chinese laws and regulations, shortly after Pearl Harbor. The debate lasted for over a year, emphasizing the prevalence of anti-Asian sentiment which pervaded American society, including its laws. While Congress praised China for its resistance against the Japanese, the Chinese government and its citizens had been conspicuously discriminated against by the American government. Unequal treaties from over a century before prevented Americans and British nationals from being tried in Chinese courts for crimes committed on Chinese soil and Chinese immigration had been severely restricted since 1882. And, while the American and British governments repealed the unequal treaties in 1942, it was a symbolic gesture and it was not until the end of 1943 that the immigration issue was resolved.