He walks slowly through the corridors filled with nostalgia and tears. On the surrounding walls black & white photographs are telling the stories of immigrants. Once upon a time, this place was the final stop before the dream began. Ellis Island sealed their future in America.
Today, George Tselos (foto) is keeping those memories safe. It’s been more than a century since the last immigrant stepped foot for the first time on this land. From 1892 until 1954, Ellis Island, welcomed millions of people around the world. This is the place where people who arrived in New York passed an inspection to be admitted and stay in America. This was the island of hope and disappointment.
The boat taking visitors from Manhattan took less than ten minutes in the dark waters of the river to join yesterday to today. George Tselos, head of library and archive of Ellis Island (today operates as a museum), has been expecting me to travel into the past, where thousands of Greeks took the path to foreign lands. He will tell me the adventures and the racist attitudes against them.
Testimonials and memories of people that have been born in different times and different places show that societies do share something in common, a fear of the unknown.
George Tselos’s father Dimitri was among the 750,000 Greeks who arrived on Ellis island by mid 1920’s. “He was the youngest among 5 brothers. He lived in a village in Greece called Arcadia, in difficult times and living poorly. His last memory was of his mother sitting on the stairs in a pool of blood as she miscarriaged what would have been her sixth child becasue there was no doctor available.
His father’s journey from Greece to the United States lasted four weeks. He was 15 years old, packed in the ship “Ioannina” along with hundreds of passengers. In the United States, he would meet his elder brother. When a ship arrived in New York City; inspectors of the Immigration and Public Health were looking at the decks of passengers of the first two classes. The rest of the passenger were transported by boat to Ellis Island where they were examined by the “six seconds doctors”. It was said that a doctor could determine a lot about the health of travelers (from anemia to varicose veins) just by looking at them.
Immigration laws were not so strict, says Mr. Tselos. The main condition was to have at least $25 dollars with you to show that you will be able to survive until you find work. In addition, of course you had to be healthy and have a clean criminal record.
The authorities were very strict with regard to unaccompanied women. They rarely gave them a migratory license as they were afraid they would become victims of exploitation in America. Those who could not enter the country, they could return home for free with the ships that they had arrived in.
Greeks were called names such as “filthy” . Despite the fact that America is a nation of immigrants, residents did not welcome newcomers with enthusiasm. “There was much hatred and stereotypes,” says Tselos. “Polish were considered stupid. While the Greeks were considered gamblers, and Irish were considered alcoholics. Along with the Italians, the Greeks were not considered part of the Anglo-Saxon (“white”). According to the perceptions of the era, the racism had different scales. At the top of the pyramid where the Western Europeans. The Mediterranean people were placed in the lower level as their skin was darker and the bottom were the African tribes.
The picture of the Greek immigrants began to change when more African-American moved to the northeastern states in search of work. Racism against skin color for Greeks started to change, explains Mr. Tselos. Unlike most Greek immigrants of that time, working in construction or starting up business in restaurants, Mr. Tselos’ father followed an academic career. He completed his PhD at Princeton and later taught Art History at the University of New York and Minnesota. He experienced racism once in his life when his application was rejected by a known university saying that they don’t need any more foreigners, but his father was already an American citizen and was already living in the country for 30 years.
Contrary to the stereotypes and prejudices, the Greeks have not seen hatred from Americans in the way Chinese immigrants did. For many years Chinese Immigrants were not allowed into the United States. Most Chinese had come to build the railroad in America, and when the work was completed they remained in the country. However, In periods of economic recession, the public blamed the Chinese for lack of jobs. They said that they are stealing their jobs. Unfortunately, they became the scapegoats.
In an effort to reduce the migrational wave period during the years of 1916-1917 the U.S. authorities established a reading test. They believed that most immigrants were illiterate and they had to read sentences in their native language. Most of them, however, were able to pass the test. And so another stereotype for immigrants came to an end, says Tselos.
(Source: Ta nea)