Most of us have heard of Ellis Island. Many of us who have traced our ancestry can lay claim to having descended from someone who came through Ellis Island on their journey to becoming an American citizen.
Prior to 1892 immigration was controlled by individual states. On January 1, 1892 the Federal government opened an official immigration station on Ellis Island. More than 12 million immigrants would arrive in the United States via this island in the next 62 years. The island became a symbolic landmark and immigrants who came to this country to seek a better life saw this island as the doorway to the land of opportunity. A large majority of those who came were from Northern European countries.
Even today Ellis Island is held up as a great symbol of our country and the welcome it gave to immigrants. On a web site devoted to the island it is called “a poetic symbol of the American Dream”
After arriving at the island immigrants were screened for any obvious physical ailments. They also had to fill out a form before boarding the ship with their name, country they were from and some questions that could be used by the legal inspectors before being granting leave to enter the USA. Although some were turned away or kept for many days before being allowed to enter or sent back to their home country, only two percent were denied entry.
Today there is a National Museum of Immigration on the island. The first immigrant to be processed there has a statute in her honor. She has become a well-known historical figure
Other well known immigrants came through Ellis Island including Bob Hope, Irving Berlin and Cary Grant. Other less well known were Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay and Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku.
This island is celebrated by our nation and it boast its own foundation website who states that its goal is:
The Foundation works to preserve and honor two of our country’s greatest landmarks: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We pursue a diverse range of educational and community building efforts and work to create meaningful connections between island visitors and the dense fabric of American history.
There is a Passenger Search database where you can search for family members who arrived there from 1820 to 1957. There are close to 65 million passenger records. For $50 you can even have a foundation members search the records for you.
But what if your ancestors did not come from northern Europe? What if your ancestors came to the USA as slaves? Is there an island, is there a foundation for you to research your background?
Well there is Sullivan Island in South Carolina.
In 1674 Captain Florence O’Sullivan was placed by the government of Carolina in charge of protecting the city of Charles Towne (Charlestown). He chose the island that now bears his name as the best place to place a gun that would protect the town.
It quickly became a commercial center for rice and indigo trade. As the colonies grew and trade in slaves became another highly commercial venture, Charlestown quickly became the largest slave port in the USA. Sullivan’s Island was the main entry point for Africans forced into slavery in the North American colonies. Until January 1, 1801 when the slave trade was abolished in the USA, approximately 400,000 Africans were imported to the USA to labor in the tobacco and cotton fields of the South. It is believed that at least 40% of that number came through Sullivan Island.
“Pest houses” were built on the island where the slaves would be quarantined for days before they were then transported to Charles Town for sale at public auction.
Sadly, unlike Ellis Island, there is little to mark the history of those who came to the USA through this island.
In 1989 writer Toni Morrison noted this lack of recognition by our nation.
“There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath or wall, or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.”
In 1990 a small plaque was finally placed on the island commenorating all those who came to the USA through Sullivan’s Island.
A place where…Africans were brought to this country under extreme conditions of human bondage and degradation. Tens of thousands of captives arrived on Sullivan’s Island from the West African shores between 1700 and 1775. Those who remained in the Charleston community and those who passed through this site account for a significant number of the African-Americans now residing in these United States. Only through God’s blessings, a burning desire for justice, and persistent will to succeed against monumental odds, have African-Americans created a place for themselves in the American mosaic.
A place where…We commemorate this site as the entry of Africans who came and who contributed to the greatness of our country. The Africans who entered through this port have moved on to meet the challenges created by injustices, racial and economic discrimination, and withheld opportunities. Africans and African-Americans, through the sweat of their brow, have distinguished themselves in the Arts, Education, Medicine, Politics, Religion, Law, Athletics, Research, Artisans and Trades, Business, Industry, Economics, Science, Technology and Community and Social Services.
A place where…This memorial rekindles the memory of a dismal time in American history, but it also serves as a reminder for a people who – past and present, have retained the unique values, strength and potential that flow from our West African culture which came to this nation through the middle passage.
Erected in 1990 by the S.C. Department of Archives and History. The Charleston Club of S.C. and the Avery Research Center.
Pursuant to a request from the South Carolina General Assembly as Evidenced in concurrent resolution S. 719, Adopted June 3, 1990.
Two different islands – two different stories. Although those who came through Ellis Island no doubt suffered many difficulties just making the trip and then going through the screening process on the island, they came willingly as their own choice and came seeking the hope of a better life.
Those who came through Sullivan Island did not come as their own choice but were stolen from their family and home and subjected to a journey over the ocean that we cannot even begin to imagine. They did not come seeking anything or hoping for a better life.
Ellis Island might have a sign that said “Welcome to America”
Sullivan Island’s sign might say “Welcome to Hell.”