Friday, July 20, 2007

Family Reunion

Editor's Note: While this is a fictional story, the following is based on facts about immigrants' experiences at Ellis Island and the photos are of real immigrants or scenes at Ellis Island.

Angelina Palmieri's heart pounded so hard, she thought it would leap from her chest. She was going to see Papa again!

Ten-year-old Angelina thought about Papa all the time -- she missed him so much! But she also was nervous about seeing him after such a long time. Papa had not even met Angelina's youngest sister, Maria, who was born after he went to America.

Angelina's father had left the Palmieris' village of San Cataldo in Sicily, Italy, four years ago, when she was only six. He went to make a new life for his family in America, and now he was living with his brother in a place called Pittston, Pennsylvania. Papa's last letter contained tickets for Mama, Angelina, and her three sisters for a steamship voyage to New York. They had to travel in steerage because that was all Papa could afford.

With as many of their belongings as they could stuff into satchels and suitcases, the Palmieri family took a seven-hour train ride to the port city of Palermo. There, they boarded the ship -- called the Sicilian Prince -- that would take them to America. Soon after their journey began, however, Angelina became sick with a fever and swollen glands along her neck.

She survived the 13-day voyage, though, and the Sicilian Prince pulled into New York Harbor on July 22, 1907. Its crew held back Angelina's family, as well as a large number of other passengers, but allowed some people to leave the ship.

"Why can't we get off like those people?" Angelina asked her mother.

"They might be Americans, or they might be passengers who traveled in first or second class. If you are new to America and traveled in steerage, like us, you have to go to Ellis Island first. They do not let just anybody into America."

Angelina began imagining the worst. What if she or Mama or her sisters were not allowed to enter this new country? Would she ever see them or Papa again?

The Palmieri family waited its turn to take the short ferry ride from the ship to Ellis Island. When Angelina, Mama, and the girls finally entered the Main Building at Ellis Island, all they could do was stare at the thousands of people. "How will Papa ever find us?" Angelina thought to herself.

"Stay close together!" Mama said. Angelina, holding tightly to Maria's hand, could barely hear Mama above the tremendous noise in the building's baggage room. It was overwhelming to have so many different people speaking so many different languages all together in one area.

Authoritative-looking men in uniforms took papers out of Mama's hands. Someone attached a tag to Angelina's shoulder. She looked around and realized that everyone had on a tag that identified him or her by name, ship's name, and the page number of the ship's manifest on which his or her name appeared. One official tried to take Angelina's luggage, but she resisted. She was not about to hand over her personal things, which included a special gift for Papa.

"Angelina, you must give them your satchel. You do not want to be carrying it with you all day." Mama pointed to a nearby mountain of luggage. "We will get it back before we leave, I promise."

Reluctantly, Angelina let go of the satchel, and a worker ushered the Palmieri family toward a giant staircase. Prodded by officials and crowds of other immigrants, Angelina, Mama, and the girls walked up the stairs. At the top in the Great Hall, a doctor examined each member of the family as she walked toward him. The doctor spoke to Angelina, but she did not understand English.

"Tell him your name and walk a little for him," Mama instructed in Italian. "He wants to see if there is anything wrong with you." Angelina obeyed and then took her turn standing in front of more doctors, who were seated at a long table.

Another doctor approached Angelina with an instrument that looked like a buttonhook. Pulling her eyelid up, he checked to see if she had trachoma. The doctor also examined her nails and then her scalp for favus and lice. Indications of any of these diseases were reasons for immigrants to be detained and subjected to more inspections -- or worse, deported!

Although it took only a few minutes, to Angelina this process seemed to take hours. And there were so many questions! One wrong answer could send the whole family back to Sicily. Not understanding and afraid to respond, Angelina looked at Mama for reassurance.

When the doctor felt along the sides of Angelina's neck, she swallowed nervously, hoping her glands were no longer swollen. Then Angelina noticed a piece of chalk in the doctor's hand. She knew what chalk marks meant: detainment or deportation.

The doctor reached out to Angelina. She cringed and held her breath, but instead of a chalk mark, Angelina got a pat on the shoulder! She breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at him and Mama.

The legal inspection came next. Maria squirmed against Angelina as they waited in a long line until their ship number was called. Ever so slowly, the Palmieris moved along with others from the Sicilian Prince. Angelina's high-buttoned shoes pinched her toes, yet there was not even a bench on which to rest. She waved her shawl in front of her like a fan -- it was growing very warm with all the people inside the building.

After several hours, the Palmieris approached the inspectors' desks at the back of the Great Hall. A man checked their tags and spoke to Mama in Italian. He asked a lot of questions: What is your name? Where were you born? Where are you going? Do you have relatives in America? Who paid for your passage? How much money do you have? Mama answered them all.

The inspector checked her responses against the information on the ship's manifest. He seemed to be satisfied.

One official handed "landing cards" to Mama, Angelina, and her sisters. Relieved and excited, they made their way back downstairs and collected their bags. As they walked out of the building, they spotted him: There was Papa, with his arms outstretched and his face beaming with joy!

Steerage is the section of the ship, usually near the rudder, that offers the cheapest passenger accommodations.

Satchels are small bags, often with shoulder straps, used to carry hooks or clothing.

First or Second class is the most luxurious and expensive of accommodations.

A manifest is a list of passengers on a ship.

Trachoma is a contagious eye disease that sometimes can cause blindness.

Favus is a skin infection, usually on the scalp.

Lice are small, wingless, usually parasitic, insects.

Detained means kept from proceeding, or delayed.

Deported means expelled from a country.
'X' Marks the Spot

Like many others who literally had "just gotten off the boat." Angelina feared being marked with chalk. The immigrants knew that any labeling done in chalk was not a good sign. Sometimes a word, such as "hands," "nails," or "skin." was written. More often, though, simple letters, like the following, spoke volumes about the wearer to immigration officials:

X = suspected mental defect
B = black
CT = trachoma
E = eyes
F = face
Ft = feet
H = heart
L = lameness
N = neck
Pg = pregnancy
Sc = scalp
S = senility


The Kissing Post

There was a special spot on the first floor in the west wing of Ellis Island's Main Building that officials referred to as the Kissing Post. It was just a simple partition that separated travelers who were being processed through immigration from the family or friends who had come to greet them. Once the immigrants were free to enter the United States, they could embrace the loved ones waiting for them. Sometimes, this was after long periods of time spent apart, so there usually were plenty of hugs, tears, and, of course, kisses!
-- B.D.K.

By Barbara D. Krasner



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