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Immigrants’ photographic legacy
Examinations of contemporary immigration issues often reference the past, particularly from the age of mass migration (1850 - 1920), while intermittently dominating today's news cycles. In order to help visualize this turbulent era so that linkages to contemporary trends can be clearly drawn, much of the same photographic material that previous generations of journalists, historians, museum curators, and artists had at their disposal is often utilized. While such recycled or remixed works may be deployed in good faith, do we know all there is about the original works, including their subjects? Why were the photos taken? How have they been used? How did they become the photographic voice of a historical moment?
The photos and imagery presented in the following chapters trace and explore some of the visual vocabulary that viewers, past and present, have picked up and incorporated into their understanding of immigrants and migrants.
While scholarly publications and resources on the subject of immigration to the U.S. are unquestionably deep and rewarding, they're often slightly out of reach for non-specialists. Works devoted to the patterns, causes, effects, influences and repercussions of immigration to the U.S. fill the shelves of every self-respecting research library. Many studies capture factually (through legislative history, statistics, interviews, etc.) key aspects of the early 20th century immigrant experience and the best of them offer trenchant analysis from a variety of perspectives and modes. Taken as a whole, such writings continue to right historical wrongs by untangling racist fears and deconstructing popular prejudices; their authors are to be applauded for expanding our historical understanding of this crucial time period, which has resulted in much more nuanced and accurate narratives. Some extensive, recently produced online resources are also providing a basis for bridging gaps (historical, legislative) and drawing much needed attention to recurring patterns in arguments for and against immigration.1
Besides being less-widely consumed, many scholarly works on immigration to the U.S. also haven't focused much on the ambiguous role that deliberately constructed and deployed imagery played in shaping public opinion, pro and con, via media. By the turn of the 20th century, the then new technology of photography would be used to supercharge textual rhetoric in newspapers, magazines, books, and broadsides. Unfortunately, there is comparatively little non-textual material (e.g. photographs) in circulation that unequivocally capture early 20th century arrivals at immigration stations like Ellis Island or Angel Island who went on to become U.S. citizens.2 Even less visual material is paired with real-life stories; without having both in one breath the viewer is often stuck with incomplete or even false narratives.
While a great number of photos of immigrants were taken at Ellis Island during the early 20th century, much of that work remains scattered across period newspapers, magazines, journals, books and reports—and is often laden with the harsh anti-immigrant sentiments and eugenic rhetoric so prevalent at the time.
Though less widely explored, there is a long history of documentary photography associated with San Francisco's Angel Island Immigration Station. After the passage of the Geary Act in 1892 and subsequent 1893 amendment, a number of onerous requirements were placed exclusively upon alien, native born, and naturalized Chinese American residents—groups who had already long suffered deep discrimination in daily life and been subject to appalling depictions in the press. After the passage of the act, now they alone (Chinese Americans) would be required to possess certificates of residence and certificates of identity, at all times. Such identity documents were to include photos, marking the first time the U.S. government required photos of citizens and/or residents in identity documents.3 Many of the original applications and related documents survive and include some stunning portraits of turn-of-the-century Chinese Americans.
However, some of the work of a few photographers in particular is anything but hidden away in the digital or physical world, though their origins and past applications have often at best been ambiguous. Regardless, 100 years and counting many of the images seem irrepressible and continue to turn up in unlikely forms and places.
Public murals, lithographs, sculptures, works on canvas, huge vinyl banners, collages, hand-colored prints, and digitally-colorized portraits are some of the mediums artists have recently used to re-imagine old photographs shot at Ellis Island. For years, some have also been available as postcards at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration gift shop. But in many instances so little is known about the source material, let alone the subjects themselves, that artists and re-mixers appear to have assumed they're working with with de facto immigrants that can be taken at face value. This has led to some unintended but deeply troubling ironies.
In some cases, however, a critical re-reading of a photograph, combining contextual elements previously ignored, can fundamentally change the way the work should be interpreted.
The SteeragePerhaps the most iconic "immigrant photo" ever made, and one of the most famous images of the 20th century, Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage is a sublime but easy to misread photo. Stieglitz took the photo in 1907 with a Graflex, a simple single-lens reflex camera that would become a favorite of photo journalists and fine art photographers. He grabbed the camera in haste to capture a fleeting moment of human and mechanical convergence; by the photographer's own account the photo that resulted was an unplanned event. Stieglitz and his family were traveling aboard the 700-foot S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II on their way to a European vacation and, perhaps unexpectedly, with this one shot the artist was about to leap away from the highly-stylized, symbolist oriented photography that had brought him notoriety...and into modernity.
Until recently, The Steerage had been used numerous times in print and media as representative of the beginning of the classic immigrant journey to America. But when Stieglitz captured this iconic moment, the Kaiser Wilhelm II was actually steaming away from New York and heading towards Plymouth, England...or even already anchored at Plymouth. So the passengers (the people captured in the photo) were not emigrating to the to the U.S. but rather were a mix of return migrants, birds of passage, deportees, sojourners, or naturalized (U.S.) citizens returning to their homeland for a visit.
Two women on board wearing or holding striped shawls (i.e. tallits) were for decades assumed to be Jewish, but upon closer inspection the tallits turned out to be striped blankets probably issued onboard the steamship, thereby erasing the one marker that gave them a distinct ethnoreligious identity. Also, Stieglitz and his family were situated in luxurious first-class quarters of the mammoth North German Lloyd steamer, far removed from the below deck squalor, and by his own admission only ventured out of his comfortable surroundings by chance. Bored with the stuffy company in first-class, he decided to see how the other half were living below; that's the accident that prompted the photo. What resulted was a first-class view of the third-class masses.
Make no mistake, The Steerage is modernist masterpiece of photography and Stieglitz himself regarded it as his most representative work, but some of the facts behind the photo, often absent, are crucial to a better reading of the work.
With Ellis Island, however, two photographers in particular are primarily responsible for visually setting/framing contemporary perceptions of early 20th century immigrant arrivals: Augustus Sherman and Lewis Hine. Many of their several hundred surviving photos are accessible in digital collections on the web as well as in print.4 In fact, there is a certain ubiquity and multipurpose nature to their work—especially today—but if taken at face value, like Stieglitz's The Steerage, such images can mislead rather than accurately inform and educate.
Though his intentions might have been benign, Sherman's work in particular invokes the specter of eugenics while simultaneously disinforming the historical record.
Augustus F. Sherman (1862-1925)Augustus Frederick Sherman, a near-lifelong employee with the Immigration Bureau of Ellis Island, held a number of positions throughout his career that put him in close contact with immigrant arrivals at the busiest immigration station the world has ever seen. Most of this time was spent as an important clerk of various ranks, but whatever official duties he had in this capacity have left few traces in government archives or elsewhere. However, between 1904 and the early 1920s, Sherman made a series of stunning photographic portraits of Ellis island arrivals, many of whom were being held by U.S. immigration officials for special investigation, that are anything but forgotten.
According to all written accounts or retrospective studies I've encountered, photographing immigrants was not part of Sherman's official duties at Ellis Island but rather more of an periodic, spontaneous activity.5 Regardless, his work ended up having a remarkably long afterlife: over one hundred years and counting, Sherman's photos have gone on to become some of the most reproduced early 20th century U.S. “immigrant photos” on record, appearing in books, newspapers, magazines, congressional hearings, exhibits and more recently via web-based news and archival platforms.6
The United States' uneasy and predictably unoriginal struggles with who is and who should become a U.S. citizen have ensured that each "new" debate on immigration brings out the same restrictionist arguments and oftentimes the same old photos by Sherman and some of his contemporaries.
Perhaps this is understandable. Shot with subjects facing forward or in three-quarter profile, the 200 or so photos that have survived are indeed striking, mostly well-composed portraits that capture an old world/new world convergence, along with some degree of America’s expanding ethnic diversity. However, Sherman's portraits never really escape the junk science of racial categorization/hierarchy that was growing increasingly commonplace during the early 20th century; there's good evidence to suggest that this mindset provided the context for Sherman’s non-clerical activities. Because reproductions of his photos often lack adequate or proper context, viewers can easily be led to believe that the subjects were typical immigrants to the United States; they were not. Many if not all of the subjects captured in Sherman’s portraits were individuals that had been detained upon entry at Ellis Island for legal or “medical” reasons and some would have been denied entry and/or deported.
Unfortunately, Sherman did not record the names of most of his photographic subjects, making research into the context of their emigration and ultimate fate near impossible to determine, but it’s reasonable to assume that individuals with congenital deformities or conditions (e.g. microcephaly, dwarfism), or individuals from exotic lands where a zero-immigration policy was in place (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa, China, etc.) did not go on to become U.S. citizens. In fact, some were in reality performers contracted to tour with U.S. circuses. In later chapter, I explore the journeys and lives of a few of Sherman's subjects I've succeeded in identifying.
Remarkable as some may be, Sherman’s photos are not necessarily representative of immigrants who went on to naturalize as U.S. citizens and settle permanently. Though they were presumed to be essentially documentary photography at the time—and even perhaps today—many of the photos are exploitative and/or imbued with a eugenic (visual) rhetoric that highlights race, disability and otherness.7 The racism and bad science that allowed such ideas and images to be readily consumed had long been resonating in popular culture and academia, and it was writ large at Ellis Island, Angel Island and other immigration stations. In a way, the photos serve(d) as a kind of warning to non-immigrant America (e.g. they're not like us and here they come...) while simultaneously providing a window for curious onlookers to peer through.
The most extreme examples of Sherman's work (those that display pronounced human disability) are not part of the New York Public Library's digitized collection of his photos, nor included in an earlier online collection made by the U.S. National Park Service.8 Largely unseen today, these photos are just as relevant to establishing context as the more widely distributed ones, perhaps even more so because they illuminate hidden aspects of Sherman's motivations as a photographer.menace and threat to proper Anglo-Saxon America than a benefit; only a few offer marginally sympathetic portrayals in accompanying texts.9 Despite the wide-scale use of his photos, Sherman's name was rarely attributed to his work until well after his death in 1925.
Sherman's earliest photos date from 1904 and were quickly utilized by different media until the 1920s. Besides receiving broad print syndication, his photos were also featured in government documents like the Annual report of the Superintendent of Immigration to the Secretary of the Treasury, and through extended features in National Geographic, The New York Times, as well as in denominational newspapers and trade publications.10 The wide and near-simultaneous deployment of his photos indicates a coordinated, deliberate distribution—perhaps coming from whatever passed for a public relations division of the federally-controlled Ellis Island Immigration Station—in conjunction with the Commissioner General of Immigration.
By the 1910s, Sherman's work had also made its way into the permanent collections of museums and missionaries. Such collections were not made for posterity but rather to serve as photo stock for future applications e.g. educational purposes...with an agenda.
Extending the hand of fraternal helpfulnessDuring the 1910s and 1920s, Sherman and Hine appear to have shared (or sold) negatives of their work with the Methodist Church Board of Missions, complete with log notes, captions or annotations. In 2019, the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church made available a massive photo collection that includes dozens of uncredited works by Sherman and Hine, some of them unique or with unique annotations, offering new insight into both photographer's work.
Why were these photographers mixing with Methodist Missionaries working out of Ellis Island? It seems an unlikely pairing at first, but closer study reveals parallel trajectories: influencing public opinion.
Missionaries were reliable fixtures at both Ellis Island and Angel Island for decades, providing education, advice and care to immigrants—especially ones in detention or perceived to be wayward. Throughout their lives, both Sherman and Hine interacted with different secular and religious-based organizations who were interested in how photography could be used to support or visually legitimize their assistance to arrivals at Ellis Island. The photographic works procured by organizations such as the Methodist Church Board of Missions was in turn stored for future use in lantern slide presentations for fellow missionaries, or for use among their congregations, public lectures, or in denominational newspapers.
Besides simply wanting to help those in need, missionaries at Ellis Island naturally had other motives for their work. "What if warm-hearted messengers of Christ were there to give them [i.e. Christian immigrants] welcome and counsel, and direct and in some way follow them to their new home?", asked a Presbyterian minister in 1904 as he envisioned how the "evangelization of foreigners" might begin at Ellis Island. Another missionary observed that "The socialization and Christianization of these aliens ought to be very much easier because of the way in which we have touched them at the Island." Based on some telling traces in various books and periodicals from 1905 on, Sherman appears to have been tasked with the onboarding of multi-denominational members of the faith who assisted immigrants at Ellis Island, as well as public school teachers who worked at Ellis Island to "bring the torch of education to foreigners" in detention.11
Besides uptake by missionaries with an interest in Ellis Island arrivals, at least one well-known New York museum acquired some of Sherman's work during the photographer's lifetime. A dozen or more hand-colored lantern slides made from some of Sherman's earliest work are owned by the American Museum of Natural History. The precise reason why they appear in the museum's vast holdings—as a collection that was lendable to New York schools—remains unclear, but their inclusion indicates yet another level of the dissemination of Sherman's work.12
Controlling the visuals behind the face of early 20th century immigration to the United States, selectively using them for pedagogical purposes, would, perhaps wittingly, help shape and bolster the increasingly restrictive immigration narrative of the time.
“...no inherent right to come here”There is no shortage of alarmist, racist commentary on the "quality" of immigrants coming to the U.S. during the early 20th century—or any century—but the delivery isn't always straightforward. While the popular press of the day was often steeped heavy in unmistakably bigoted xenophobia, statements and publications from government officials and agencies sounded a more opaque approach to promoting restrictionist immigration policies. Sherman's photos were frequently deployed alongside both kinds of text. His work was the property of the Commissioner General of Immigration, so its dissemination could have only come through official channels. How did this come to be?
Sherman worked at Ellis Island during both of William Williams' terms as federal commissioner of immigration for the Port of New York from 1902-1905 and 1909-1913. During his tenure, Williams, who was in no small measure a restrictionist and nativist, kept a running collection of photographs (about 50 of which were made by Sherman), newspaper clippings, sketches, and letters pertaining to immigration that he would assemble in scrapbooks. The scrapbooks and other materials have been kept by the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library and form the basis of most of the digital remixing of Sherman's photographs.
In order to better understand Sherman's photos, his work should be seen in the context of the mediums they were featured, as well as within the larger context of the era of mass immigration and mass restriction. Williams frequently shared his thoughts on the matter, and, as commissioner of immigration, naturally had a lot to say. While he tried to maintain a veneer of impartiality regarding Ellis Island arrivals, he couldn't always contain his displeasure when it came to the quality of recent immigration of Southern and Eastern Europe, who made up the majority of arrivals at Ellis Island during the early 20th century. By his second term as commissioner (1909-1913), his public communications had turned less-guarded, as had those of a number of Ellis Island officials, and revealed his simmering prejudices. In his 1911 Annual Report, Williams wrote:
Although the precise reasons for doing so still remain obscure, Sherman started his photographic work at Ellis Island when the station was under Williams' direction. By keeping prints of Sherman's photos in his own personal papers, it's clear Sherman's portraits resonated with Williams and that he believed them to be representative of the "types" prescribed. How did he characterize them? We don't know, but through Sherman's portraits, Williams and his successors could control the visual vocabulary of the "backward races" passing through Ellis Island by deliberately supplying them to newspapers, magazines and other media outlets; that seems their likely purpose. What's absent is Sherman's own thoughts on the matter and it's unclear whether he was at least partially self-directed or was requested to make the portraits.
The new immigration, unlike that of the earlier years, proceeds in part from the poorer elements of the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe and from backward races with customs and institutions widely different from ours and without the capacity of assimilating with our people as did the early immigrants. Many of those coming from these sources have very low standards of living, possess filthy habits and are of an ignorance which passes belief. Types of the classes referred to representing various alien races and nationalities may be observed in some of the tenement districts of Elizabeth, Orchard and Rivington and East Houston Streets, New York City. [...] They often herd together, forming in effect foreign colonies in which the English language is almost unknown.13
Sherman's photos have continued to circulate in various formats over the years—exponentially so in the digital age—though with an altogether different subtext: this is how your immigrant ancestors looked before they came to the U.S.14 But the reality is much more complicated and ambiguous and should defy casual assessment.
Since Sherman's photos have come to light, few scholars have attempted any deep analysis of the photographer's work and life and most of the partial critiques available have mainly focused on their value as photographic documentary material—remaining unfortunately silent on some of the more incongruous and disturbing aspects of his work.
Sherman's photographs have been widely consumed for over one hundred years, but has the fuller context of their creation and contemporaneous use been adequately explored?
Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940)Between 1904 and 1909 and in 1926, photographer and social reformer Lewis Wickes Hine captured some 200 remarkable images of immigrants in various states of processing at Ellis Island.15 Hine sought to use photography as an educational tool in the service of reform and was a groundbreaking documentary photographer. But he took an unusual path, one that had a decisive effect on what fueled his relentless pursuits to, as Hine puts it, "show the things that had to be corrected...the things that had to be appreciated." After a humble start in Wisconsin and years working odd jobs (janitor, deliveryman), he eventually obtained degrees in pedagogy and sociology and became a teacher at the Felix Adler Ethical Cultural School as well as staff photographer for the Russell Sage Foundation in New York.
As far as photography goes, he was largely self-taught and spent years developing unobtrusive techniques to photograph subjects that were largely being ignored (child laborers) or had never been presented sympathetically (immigrants). While Hine's startling images of child labor were well-reproduced during his lifetime, his earlier Ellis Island portraits—or "photo-studies" as he called them—were not widely seen until after his death in 1940. Like Sherman’s portraits, some have gone on to become iconic images for documenting the millions of Europeans who passed through Ellis Island.16 Although the work of each photographer has been used indiscriminately over the years by historians and journalists alike, undeniable differences in why each made photo portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island have since emerged. Different motives set them on radically different paths and also affected who they chose to photograph.
But for a number of reasons, Hine’s portraits better represent typical early 20th century immigrants, many of whom we can assume went on to becoming U.S. citizens. As Klara-Stephanie Szlezák concludes: "Hine’s work was not a depiction of the stereotype of ‘the immigrant’ but rather of the plurality of immigrants, granting each of the subjects’ individuality in a unique scenery and situation, thereby suppressing established notions of the immigrants’ inferiority."17
Among other things, the first decades of the 20th century were characterized by intense discrimination of "new immigrants" from Italy and Southeastern Europe, who were seen by many as undesirable and often treated with scorn and derision by the dominant Protestant, Anglo-Saxon fueled ruling class. Hine thought this cruel and unfair, and he aimed to do something about it.
Partly inspired by the work of Jacob Riis, pragmatists, and Progressive Era reformers, Hine’s photographs succeed in humanizing the "poor huddled masses" and help contextualize—through images alone—a key phase of the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. This was already evident in his earliest photographic work at Ellis Island, works which would first appear in the influential but often anti-immigrant social work journal, The Survey, in April 1909.18
But by 1914, both Hine and Sherman's Ellis Island portraits would be used in comprehensive and decidedly racist tomes tackling the "immigration problem." One such work is E.A. Ross' The Old World in the New. In it, Sherman and Hines' works were featured together in a book that lamented the coming race suicide and the potential "triumph of the low-standard elements over the high-standard elements." The book is filled with enough racist fearmongering to make a Madison Grant or Lothrop Stoddard smile, both of whom had far more influential works about to be published. Despite such placement, and the explicitly anti-immigrant positions of the majority of Progressive Era thinkers and reformists, we know from Hine's personal letters that he was deeply sympathetic towards his subjects, whether they were child laborers in South Carolina, coal miners in Pennsylvania, or detained arrivals at Ellis Island. However, there is some ambivalence in his writings towards the larger issue of immigration, an approach shared by many of his fellow progressives.19 Mostly, Hine is simply silent, and so in order to help fill in the blanks, a number of Hine's commentators have relied on texts that imply a more pro-immigration stance for Hine. For example, in a 1938 letter from Frank Manny, Hine's former mentor who sometimes accompanied him on trips to Ellis Island, Manny asks Hine:
Hines' Ellis Island portraits offer a deeply empathetic look at the so-called new immigration of the early 20th century, (mostly) free from the eugenic undertones of Sherman’s photos and carrying an altogether different subtext: photography as social criticism.
Do you recall our talking about a Pilgrim Celebration and a little Russian said he was thankful that the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock? I said I wanted the children of later days to feel equal regard of Castle Island and Ellis Island. [...] you were the only one who seemed to see what I was after.20
Notwithstanding, Hine’s photos are more than sympathetic portraits of immigrants; they are also products of a complex and uneasy time where numerous aspects of citizenry were institutionally racialized. As Leslie Jennifer Urena has pointed out: "While Hine may have gone to Ellis Island with the intention of creating pedagogical tools designed to draw support for new immigrants, he returned with photographs that also facilitated the denigration of immigrants."21
Hine’s racialized subjects ironically served the dual purpose of appealing to both reformers and restrictionists alike. They also, in the main, continue the pattern of Sherman’s anonymous, racial typing as well as exclude immigrants from other parts of the world that settled in the U.S. during the early 20th century, e.g. South Asia and much of the Middle East.22 It's also worth noting that during his lifetime, Hine's Ellis Island portraits would be used in a number of publications that sought to undermine the “new immigration” that was rapidly striking fear and loathing in a variety of intellectual and political circles.23
Julian A. Dimock (1873-1945)Besides Hine and Sherman, there are of course other photographers worth investigating who made portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island and elsewhere during the early 20th century.24
In 1907, the peak year for immigration at Ellis Island, Julian Dimock made a sympathetic and poignant series of portraits of arrivals, mostly in the station's detention room.25 Like Sherman and Hine, the photos' subjects remain largely anonymous and can only be minimally parsed with titles such as "Woman and girl in detention room", "Man from Holland (had wife and three children)", "Rumanian woman from Bucharest", or "Jewish man, Yiddish speaker".
While the composition of Dimock's photographs is certainly less ethnographic in tone compared to the work of Sherman, it is for this very reason that allows the photos to reveal something obvious: that typical arrivals at Ellis Island were not exotic specimens, nor anything like the crude caricatures depicted in many newspapers and magazines of the day, but rather more like us (i.e. good citizens) than not.
Dimock's own writing on the 1907 photo series mirrors the empathetic quality of his portraits:
During those two weeks in late 1907, Dimock captured more than 75 portraits. These much better preserved but less widely circulated photographs are imbued with the same sensitivity and compassionate eye that the photographer employed in 1904/05 during his trips to African American communities in the Deep South, just prior to the Great Migration. Both subjects are thus captured as they, or the communities they came from, were poised to experience momentous change.27
My work with the camera took many days [i.e. two weeks], for I was determined to have the chosen types representative. I tried to select an equal number of good and bad. For one whole day, I devoted myself to photographing nothing but the poorest specimens that I could find, resolutely leaving all the pretty girls and fine looking men out of it. After a week I gave up the attempt, for there were no bad types, or so few as to be negligible.26
A complete visual narrative?Remarkably, Sherman, Hine and Dimock all captured their photographs during a roughly contemporaneous period. For practical reasons, all three also spent most of their time with detained immigrants who could have been held on Ellis Island for days, weeks, even months before being admitted or deported. The three photographers easily could have bumped cameras with one another, although each of their finished products differ substantially. Does such work represent the photographic voice of a historical moment? A complete visual narrative? To some extent, yes, though their limitations have not yet been substantially addressed. Each photographer's work certainly reflects the uneasy times in which they were made, but what kind of human narrative actually lies behind the subjects of each photographer's work? I explore this question in the next chapter with a deeper study of a small portion of their work.
Deconstructing these photographic artifacts and reanimating the lives of the subjects captured may break the spell they've cast, but also has the power to fix the viewer's gaze on reality rather than false narrative.
Representation matters, especially for materials that are used to construct our visual public record. It is perhaps more important than ever to develop a visual literacy—one that peers behind both the photographer's lens and the subject's gaze—in order to see how yesterday's restrictionists allied with progressivism, junk science, and the popular racism of the day sought to secure the passing of increasingly restrictionist immigration policy, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924.
More than a hundred years later, unmistakable echos of early 20th century xenophobia and fearmongering against immigrants continue to reverberate. These echos have deep roots and parsing the sometimes coded, sometimes overtly racist language that obstructs meaningful reform and justice often leads back to the same tired rhetoric from the era of mass immigration and mass restriction. Even more disturbing is the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate violence taking place in plain sight, though often going under-reported or being carried out with smirking impunity.
Notes/Works cited1 See for example the University of Minnesota's #ImmigrationSyllabus, an excellent and exhaustive compendium of "essential topics, readings, and multimedia that provide historical context to current debates over immigration reform, integration, and citizenship." Created in January 2017.
2 There are even fewer films. The U.S. Library of Congress has preserved and made publicly available a couple of silent, grainy works that offer a moving glimpse of arrivals. Each achieves a degree of objectivity, but only at a distance. See: Emigrants [i.e. immigrants] landing at Ellis Island (1903) and Arrival of immigrants, Ellis Island (1906).
3 Pegler-Gordon, Anna In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy. (American Crossroads, number 28.) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2009, 39.
4 Recent works in print include: (1) Sherman, Augustus F., and Peter Mesenhöller. 2005. August F. Sherman: Ellis Island portraits, 1905-1920. New York: Aperture. (2) Grzonkowska, Aleksandra, Justyna Wicenty, and Monika Bokiniec. 2017. Augustus Francis Sherman: atlas imigranta = Augustus Francis Sherman : atlas of the immigrant. Gdynia: Muzeum Emigracji w Gdyni. (3) Fuentes Santos, Mónica, and Luis Miguel García Mora. 2012. Lewis Hine: from the collections of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film. New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers. (4) Hine, Lewis W., Peter Walther, and Thea Miklowski. 2018. Lewis W. Hine: America at work. Cologne: Taschen.
5 Existing accounts of Sherman's professional activities don't indicate that he took photographs in an official capacity—no one at Ellis Island seems to have been doing so—but in a later chapter I explore the possibility that this might not have been the case. During his tenure with the Immigration Service at Large, Sherman worked at Ellis Island first as Private Secretary, then Clerk, Registry Clerk, and Chief Clerk. By 1921, he was serving as Private Secretary to Commissioner of Immigration, but by 1923 until his death he served as a Clerk in the Special Inquiry Division. See: Report Submitted by Superintendent I. F. Wixon relative to the Personnel Force, 1924 Casefile 55280/4. [Undated.], from: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Series A: Subject Correspondence Files, Part 3: Ellis Island, 1900-1933 [ProQuest History Vault].
6 See, for instance:
- Washington Post’s “What America’s Immigrant Ancestors looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island”
- The Guardian’s “Color portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island – in pictures”
- Time's "Colorized Photos From Ellis Island Reflect the Timeless Struggles of Immigrants"
- Steven Kasher Gallery: "Augustus Sherman: Aliens or Americans?" [3 November - 23 December 2016]
- Howard Greenberg Gallery: "The Immigrants: A Group Exhibition of Works by Select Photographers" [14 December 2017 – 27 January 2018]
8 Mesenhöller's book reproduces over 100 of Sherman's photos and includes a number of individuals that were not, in fact, immigrants but rather non-immigrant aliens contracted with circuses and sideshows. For example, photos of "Perumall Sammy" and "Subramaino Pillay and two Microcephalics" were recorded as "circus freaks" by immigrant inspectors on the 1911 ship's manifest that documents one of their several arrivals in the U.S. The two were traveling to work with a circus based in Zanesville, Ohio. Perumall Sammy would later make additional trips to the U.S., working at Samuel W. Gumpertz's Dreamland on Coney Island as well as touring with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
9 See Arnold, Kathleen R. 2012. Anti-immigration in the United States: a historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood Press, a 900 page, 2-volume compendium to the major categories of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.
10 See, for example, Grose, Howard B. Aliens or Americans? New York : Young People's Missionary Movement, 1906. Grose was the editor of the Baptist Home Mission Monthly, published by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Sherman's photos turn up in Grose's book and subsequently in the Baptist Home Mission Monthly, which regularly featured dispatches from Baptist missionaries at Ellis Island and articles on immigration. Available via Internet Archive.
11 For background on Presbyterian missionary efforts to bring Evangelism to Ellis Island arrivals, see Thompson, Charles. "Responsibility of the Church for the Evangelization of Foreigners" The Assembly Herald, v.10, no.5 1904. Available via HathiTrust; and Rueben L. Breed's Humane missionary work at Ellis Island" The Christian Century, v.30, no.38 Sept 25 1913. Available via Internet Archive. For an example of how public school educators were enticed to work at Ellis Island, which includes one of the few contemporaneous mentions of Sherman by name, see "Teachers on Ellis Island" School, Vol. xxvi, No. 11, Nov 12 1914. Available via HathiTrust. Besides selling/sharing prints of his work with the Methodist Church Board of Missions, Hine also periodically contributed essays to their publication, Missionary Voice.
12 According to the American Museum of Natural History Research Library's website, the reason for the lantern slide collection is as follows: "To expand the Museum’s educational mission beyond its walls, a lantern slide lending library was created and formed the basis of the Natural Science Study Collections which the Museum delivered to New York schools. The lantern slides, reproduced from the growing collection of photographs created and collected by the Museum staff, were originally used to illustrate lectures given to the public at the Museum. The lectures were so successful that a new and larger theater was constructed in 1900 to accommodate the growing crowds."
13 United States, and William Williams. 1912. Ellis Island affairs: annual report of William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration for New York, in reference to Ellis Island affairs for the year ended June 30, 1911. [Washington, D.C.]: [G.P.O.]. 14-15. Available via Harvard Library. The Citizens Committee of Orchard and Rivington and East Houston Streets, New York City (representing about 7000 families, 90% of which were Jewish Americans) was incensed by Williams' comments, so much so that they sent an extraordinarily detailed and forceful rebuttal of his claims to President Taft, signed by hundreds of residents who thought Williams' comments were "interpolated for restrictionistic purposes." They demanded a retraction from Williams and their extraordinary petition was eventually entered as a Senate document. Williams was in turn furious at the response and demanded the Treasury Department furnish him with "certain information contained in the records of the revenue agent at New York relating to persons arrested for violations of the internal revenue laws in the City of New York", to help him craft his own rebuttal for his superiors. Williams received the information and sent a lengthy letter to the Commissioner General of Immigration, eventually reaching Taft. Williams never retracted his statements and doubled down on his anti "new immigration" rhetoric. See: Annual Report of the Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York, with Reference to Ellis Island Affair--Background Materials, Statements, Exhibits, and Drafts, 1911] Casefile 53294/8-B. [April-October 1912.] from: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Series A: Subject Correspondence Files, Part 3: Ellis Island, 1900-1933 [ProQuest History Vault].
14 Swanson, Ana “What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island” The Washington Post, October 24, 2015.
- Washington Post's "This photographer wanted to humanize Ellis Island’s immigrants. His images are still powerful"
- Guardian's "The photos that changed America: celebrating the work of Lewis Hine"
- PRI's "2 eras, 1 dream: Photos of immigrants on Ellis Island and today's Syrian refugees"
- NRC Handlesblad's "Lewis Hine en de immigranten van Ellis Island"
17 Szlezák, Klara-Stephanie "The Ellis Island Experience: Through the Eyes of Lewis Hine” Aspeers: emerging voices in American studies (2 2009) 73.
18 See: Leonard, Thomas C. 2017. Illiberal reformers: race, eugenics & American economics in the Progressive era, 158-160. Leonard contends The Survey was "vigorously restrictionist" and that its editor, Paul U. Kellogg, the lifelong friend, employer and champion of Hine's work, unequivocally endorsed the conclusions of the 1911 Dillingham Commission, which recommended Congress implement far-reaching restrictionist policies and to require a literacy test for all would-be-immigrants. The target of such measures was to curb the flow of southern and eastern European immigrants, whom Kellogg and other Progressives believed were a threat to "maintaining American standards of living." Beyond this, The Survey also featured articles that encouraged collaboration between the charity organization movement and the Eugenics movement, as well positive reviews of Henry H. Goddard's intelligence testing work at Ellis Island—and contributions from Irving Fischer, who in one Survey article recommended that marriage laws should be enacted to "discourage or forbid the procreation of the unfit."
19 Progressive Era thinkers and reformers weren't a uniform block of well meaning do-gooders who defended, or even much empathized with, the "new immigrant" as they made their long journey to becoming U.S. citizens. Many were, in fact, unabashedly anti-immigrant in their rhetoric and aligned themselves with abhorrent notions of what the wrong kind of people (whether they be Southeastern Europeans, Jews, "hereditary inferiors", or feeble-minded) were doing to old, Anglo America; in their eyes, they were destroying what generations of the right kind of people had built up. Social scientists (e.g. economists, sociologists, anthropologists) at the time saw themselves as society's best-positioned combatants against the unfolding race degeneration and the coming race suicide that threatened America's future; some prescribed abominable eugenics-influenced solutions to America's immigrant problem—including forced segregation to isolated colonies and sterilization, in order to put an end to the mistake of letting undesirables into the U.S. in the first place. Thomas Leonard succinctly captures the disconnect between the reformer and those they might be attempting to reform: "Progressives didn't not work in factories; they inspected them. Progressives did not drink in saloons; they tried to shutter them. The bold women who chose to live among the immigrant poor in city slums called themselves "settlers," not neighbors. Even when progressives idealized workers, they tended to patronize them, romanticizing a brotherhood they would never consider joining." See: Leonard, T. C., 7.
20 Hine, Lewis W., Peter Walther, and Thea Miklowski. 2018. Lewis W. Hine: America at work. Cologne: Taschen, 14.
21 Urena, Leslie Jennifer Lewis Hine at Ellis Island: The photography of immigration and race, 1904–1926 (Doctoral dissertation) Northwestern University, 2009, 114.
22 Between 1908 and 1924, Hine worked as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). During this time Hine made some extraordinary photos for the NCLC, a number of which include immigrant children whose names and other details he did record.
23 Besides Ross' book and The Survey mentioned above, one of Hine's most famous photo-studies, "Climbing into America," was featured prominently in a decidedly anti-immigrant 1931 article titled "Birth Control and the Racial Future," by Frank H. Hankins for People, a short-lived periodical published by the American Eugenics Society. Nearly two decades earlier in 1912, one of Hine's Ellis Island portraits was featured on the cover of The Coming Nation: A Magazine for the Creators of the New Social Order, a popular American Socialist newspaper that adopted an ambiguous overall stance on "new immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe.
24 Earlier examples, published just before Sherman and Hine started their work, can be seen in Arthur Hewitt's series of photos featured in "Americans in the Raw: The high-tide of immigrants – their strange possessions and their meager wealth – what becomes of them." by E. Lowry. — World's Work, Vol. 4 Oct., 1902, p. 2644-2655. Available via HathiTrust. "Romances of New Americans" by Eleanor Hoyt —Everybody's magazine, Vol. 8, Nr. 5, May, 1903, p. 387-399. [photos by Joseph Henry Adams]. Available via HathiTrust; and in "This Year's High Tide of Immigration,” by Samuel E. Moffett, American Monthly Review of Reviews, XXVIII, No. 1 (July 1903), 50-58. Available via HathiTrust.
25 Dimock's Ellis Island series first appeared as "studies of immigrant types" alongside photos by the ubiquitous Underwood & Underwood in a magazine article written by Robert Watchorn, who served as Immigration Commissioner at Ellis Island from 1905 to 1909. See Watchorn, Robert. "The Gateway of the Nation." Outlook, LXXXVII (December 28, 1907), 897-911. Available via HathiTrust.
27 Robert Watchorn, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, 1905-1909, kept a series of Dimock's Ellis Island portraits among his personal papers, held by the Robert Watchorn Memorial Archive in Alfreton, Derbyshire, UK; other photos from Watchorn's time at Ellis Island are held by the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California. In much the same way, Watchorn's predecessor and successor, Commissioner William Williams, kept about 50 prints of Sherman's Ellis Island portraits among his private papers; see William Williams Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.
Guadeloupe women 
Standing apart from his other work, Sherman's collection of four "Guadeloupe Women" photos capture subjects not quite at the end of their transnational migration. But this set of photos do not show Ellis Island arrivals who were going to join friends or family, nor were they people simply striking out on their own in the United States. Instead, what we see are the faces of people classified as "non-immigrant aliens" contracted for work in Canada—not in factories, mines, or mills—but rather as domestic servants in dozens of wealthy French-Canadian households scattered throughout Québec and Nova Scotia. As with a number of his other exotic arrivals, Sherman paid extra attention to these subjects and made multiple photos that employed different compositional elements. By exploring the fuller context of their migration, each portrait reveals a great deal more about its subjects and the unusual path they traveled to reach North America, as well as the blunt racism that shadowed their journey at every stop. Not all Ellis Island arrivals intended on staying in the U.S. on a permanent or even temporary basis; some were simply in transit to other destinations. Even though such "non-immigrant aliens" had no intention of staying in the United States, as steerage passengers they would undergo the same inspection regime that other immigrants at Ellis Island were subject to. Upon arrival in the New York harbor, they had to disembark from their steamship, then take a transfer ferry to Ellis Island, disembark again, then join the long, multitrack inspection process which could result in unpredictable outcomes. This time-consuming procedure gave arrivals more exposure to Ellis Island inspectors, some of whom kept an eye out for "unusually attractive or different immigrants" and, before they disappeared into the flood of arrivals, quickly brought them to the attention of Sherman. From there, it is assumed, Sherman would grab his equipment in haste and rush over to meet the individual(s), then direct them to a suitable location for a photo portrait. It remains unclear what he told his sitters the photos would be use for, or sought their permission to distribute prints of them to the press and other groups.
Unlike many of Sherman's other subjects, none of the individuals in his "Guadeloupe" photos appear to have been detained or held for special inquiry, but simply had time to spare before re-embarking following the conclusion of the inspection process. There were nearly 40 more "Guadeloupe women" traveling with the group but not photographed by Sherman.
Sherman gave precise details about both their date of entry and the ship they arrived on in a typed caption, but no names or mention of the fact that the group was simply in transit and not actual immigrants to the U.S. Although in this case it's not possible to match faces to names, locating the ship's manifest creates a flip side to Sherman's "Guadeloupe women" portraits. Clustered together on a couple of sheets, we see the group of 58 non-immigrant aliens from Guadeloupe—most unmarried women under the age of 30—who arrived at Ellis Island on 6 April 1911.
None carried any money and all had their passage paid by their future employers in Canada. Prior to leaving Guadeloupe, group members signed two-year contracts—with a monthly salary of $5—to work as domestic servants in the homes of wealthy French-Canadian families, mostly in the province of Québec. Following inspection and processing at Ellis Island, the group then re-boarded the S.S. Korona and traveled on to Le Port de Montréal. They were essentially contract laborers and this was clearly spelled out only after the ship reached its final destination. Canadian immigration inspectors at the port recorded additional details about the group on their own passenger lists:Besides the ship's crew, this group of 58 appear to have been the only passengers remaining aboard the S.S. Korona as it arrived in Québec. Shortly after their arrival, however, 12 of the 58 arrivals (20%) were recommended for deportation by immigration officials for unspecified reasons. Some of those deported could have been among the individuals photographed by Sherman just a day earlier.
It wasn't by chance that this large group was traveling such a great distance, with no additional funds to their names. The group's appearance at Ellis Island was the result of a coordinated and well-funded project that required a great deal of cooperation—and the relaxing of otherwise strictly enforced immigration regulations regarding the importation of contract laborers—among three governments: French-controlled Guadeloupe, the United States, and Canada. Cooperation with the steamship line that brought the group to port would also have been been necessary for these travelers to bypass the checks made before embarkation.
The fuller story behind the migration of the group has received some attention in scholarly literature, but Sherman's photos have never been directly connected to what's come to be known as the "Caribbean Domestic Scheme."
In a recent interdisciplinary study, Sherwood and de B'béri write:
Sherman photographed one woman from the group at least four times. Unfortunately, there is not enough information to identify her by name among the large group of arrivals, but her sharp features and distinct clothing makes it easy to trace her appearance among the portraits; she is included in the group photos above. Sherman appears to have slowly singled her out, going from group portraits of 22 to 19, then 3 to 1. A portrait of three arrivals, less seen but already publicly available, includes the same individual. Each of the four photos successively moves from a slightly awkward spontaneity to something more posed, but besides offering better framing and composition, in the smaller portraits we also see a more evocative and perhaps even more sympathetic portrayal.
The Guadeloupe immigration scheme was organized by J.M. Authier, and while it was initially conducted on an experimental basis, it would have consequences for the movement of black West Indian women for decades to follow. The first two groups of girls arriving in September 1910 and April 1911 were regarded to be of good class, but...sentiments towards the Guadeloupe girls would quickly change. The Guadeloupe girls were paid $5 per month compared with the $12-15 paid to their white counterparts.1
Claire Tancons zooms in on some of the hidden details this trio brought with them to Ellis Island, giving insights into their backgrounds and setting up the take from the photographer's point of view:
Sherman's final portrait of a solitary "Guadeloupe woman" has been widely reproduced in contemporary articles concerning turn-of-the-century immigration at Ellis Island. It is indeed a stunning portrait, perhaps one of Sherman's most gentle and evocative, but the photo achieves its tranquility and nuanced tonality in part by softly highlighting the individual's exoticism and otherness.
How he [Sherman] convinced immigrants to pose is unclear, for these women were certainly on their guard, the tallest of the group evincing a gesture of impatience with her left hand, the one in the middle holding her hands tensely below her belt, and the one farthest to the right averting her eyes from the camera altogether. She wears a douillette (a long dress) with a floral print and a variation of the plombiere headtie. These two elements, along with her undershirt, commonly worn by women in the cane fields to protect their arms, is an indication of a low social class, lower than that of the other two women, who are also fairer-skinned, an indication of status, as is their attire of greater make: a combination of a grande robe and a douillette, cinched at the waist, and a téte ronde headtie.2
The individuals that Sherman photographed weren't the first of such groups from the Caribbean, nor the last. In fact, less than a week after the first group's arrival another group of about 50 more Guadeloupean domestics would arrive at Ellis Island before heading to Montreal, each providing a separate, predetermined household address as their final destination to immigration officials. The scheme began in September 1910 and lasted until at least September 1911; it's hard to imagine that it was an easy trip for some or all. Among the different groups of arrivals, several individuals from each were detained and deported even before going on to Canada, and, once they got there, nearly two dozen more were immediately denied entry and deported back to Guadeloupe.3
Among the passengers on the S.S. Korona were a handful of Guadeloupean women, also listed as domestics, who were heading to relatives in New York. Annotations on the ship's manifest made years after their arrival by customs and immigration officials needing to verify arrival data indicate that a few went on to become naturalized U.S. citizens. It remains unclear whether these immigrants were likewise under contract with employers before making their journey. If that was the case, they would be violating federal laws forbidding the importation of contract labor and should have been refused entry by Ellis Island officials. But this is precisely what was going on with the Guadeloupean women in Canada, so who knows if those bound for the U.S. were similarly allowed entry. Regardless, thousands of Afro Caribbeans permanently settled in the U.S. during the early 20th century. Successfully navigating Ellis Island was key to the establishment of a thriving black immigrant presence, particularly in New York, just as it was for white Europeans.
Clean, docile, attentive to their workThe scheme that brought the Guadeloupean immigrants to Canada was met mostly with satisfaction on the part of their employers but with both support and derision from the Canadian government. One employer who wrote to Canadian officials in support of the scheme is quite telling and highlights the exploitative mechanisms in play as well as the open racism of the time:
Despite Canada's restrictive and discriminatory (read racist) immigration laws, which disallowed the entry of "undesirable immigrants", and people of color from any part of the world had the deck stacked against them in this regard, some exceptions were being made due to a demand for labor "native" Canadians and white European immigrants couldn't fulfill. This extended to professions other than domestic work, but the periodic importation and extended presence of black domestics in Canada (particularly in Montreal and Nova Scotia) would quickly cause debates in the Parliament of Canada as well as incur sensationalist reportage in newspapers and periodicals of the day, much as the "immigration issue" would in the U.S. press. The political friction eventually resulted in the Canadian government's decision to deport hundreds of Guadeloupean immigrants like the ones Sherman photographed.
I am happy to reply that the two servants whom I had brought over from Guadeloupe, give me entire satisfaction in every respect; they are clean, docile, attentive to their work, and their moral conduct leaves nothing to be desired. There is a great difference between the service that they give us and that we have from the greater number of the whites who have been in our employ during the last 30 years. The fact is that housework has become almost impossible with regard to the whites, the intelligent girls work in the shops and factories and there remain for us a small number, at exorbitant prices, of prostitutes and imbeciles who spoil everything...The importation of the creoles is a benefit and the Government should favour their importation.4
Historicizing Sherman's workBy August 1911, the Cabinet of Canada had passed Order-in-Council P.C. 1324, in an attempt to legally end all black immigration to Canada using patently absurd grounds. The order claimed that "[Blacks were] unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada," and therefore should not even be allowed to enter Canada, let alone settle anywhere in its territory. Despite the government's continued open hostility towards black migration, the "Caribbean Domestic Scheme" persisted, at least for a couple of months longer. The Guadeloupe women were not immigrants, after all, but rather workers under contract who were never meant to settle in Canada. A 26 August 1911 arrival brought another twenty young women from Guadeloupe, then eleven more on 11 September 1911; among the arrivals were girls aged just 16 and 17, some of whom would be immediately recommended for deportation after landing in Canada. Less than a month later, Order-in-Council P.C. 1324 was deemed unsuitable, after never being invoked or entering into the (Canadian) Immigration Act; it was repealed on 5 October 1911. Following its repeal, the Canadian government would utilize less direct means to prevent black migration.
But for those that stayed, what kind of life could they make for themselves in Canada? To the Canadian government, they were officially unwanted and unwelcome; to their wealthy employers, they were the perfect servants. 1911 Canadian Census returns for Québec show many dozens of the women from these migrations listed as "servant girls" in wealthy homes, some as young as 14 or 15 when they arrived with their mothers to work together for the daily support of their patrons. Most lived in the homes of their employers, meaning the days began early and ended late, behind closed doors. Those that could stay past the full two-year contracts would quickly find out just how much of their freedoms had been forfeited, and how difficult it would be to avoid a life of servitude in their adoptive country.
Sherwood and de B'béri point out the extraordinary challenges they faced:
It's clear these young women from Guadeloupe would have endured an extremely constrained existence in Canada, that is, if they weren't immediately or subsequently deported. Against this backdrop, how were Sherman's images and the narrative of the wider "Caribbean Domestic Scheme" presented during the 1910s?
They were less wanted as citizens than as cheap labour. Even the domestic workers who were given Canadian citizenship continued to live with the families that employed them and were so poorly paid they could rarely find opportunity to leave the family and seek alternative employment. Living with a white family meant they were generally at a considerable distance from any existing local black community. The girls lived as human capital in almost total isolation from one another.5
While it doesn't appear that any of Sherman's Guadeloupe photos were used in contemporaneous publications, the April 1911 group's departure and arrival was reported in internationally syndicated news articles. The day the group arrived at Ellis Island, The (Montreal) Gazette gave the headline "Negro girls coming", going on to blithely mention that "...a Canadian employment agent had obtained these girls with a promise of five dollars a month as wages." In the U.S., The New York Times noted the hypocrisy of the Canadian government's endorsement of the importation scheme, but refusal to accept African American migrants who recently had attempted to resettle in Canada, only to be turned away at the border.6 7
A group of over 30 mostly young women from Guadeloupe (also Dominican Republic, Haiti, Martinique & Venezuela) arrived in June 1911, all heading to Canada to work as domestic servants. This arrival also drew attention in the Canadian press, revealing how the explicitly racist nature of Canadian exclusion was publicly communicated. The Globe made it clear what was to come if the scheme continued: "The laud that welcomed the fugitive slave and gave him asylum to which the man-hunter could not follow has a proud tradition to maintain. But if the negro comes to Canada it must be under conditions that will not lend themselves to miscegenation or worse evils. The introduction of colored women who in the nature of things can have no male companions of their own race with whom to mate must bring a train of attendant evils that the good women promoting the movement do not foresee."8
Another photo, taken around 1911 by an anonymous photographer, depicts six "Negroes from the West Indies" at Ellis Island and overlaps thematically with Sherman's portraits. Perhaps the group was also part of a voyage from Guadeloupe headed for Canada, or from another tightly-controlled migration of Afro Caribbean laborers to North America. Either way, they would have faced incredible scrutiny at Ellis Island simply because they were of African descent and, if even possible, an uphill battle to naturalize as U.S. or Canadian Citizens. The photo was featured in a 1912 article by Alfred C. Reed (Assistant Surgeon, U.S. Public Health Service, 1911-1913) for The Popular Science Monthly, although there is no mention of black migration (internal or transnational) in the text. Reed worked in Ellis Island's medical division, and his article is noteworthy for its unmistakable eugenics-influenced conclusions on the undesirability of most immigrants from non-western European countries. Reed concludes that "in general, immigrants from the Mediterranean countries should be excluded, especially those from Greece, South Italy and Syria, as well as most Hebrews, Magyars, Armenians and Turks" on the basis of their biological inferiority. Migrants of African descent weren't given a mention because their "desirability" would have been even lower than that of those singled out for exclusion.9
Since 2015, Sherman's work has seen a resurgence of use by artists and remixers not seen since his photos were first distributed in the 1900s. A number of contemporary artists and illustrators, such as Julia Soboleva, have recently transformed Sherman's Guadeloupe portraits into stylized but extremely sensitive works of art. There are dozens of reasons why this is a good idea, but while it's clear that Sherman's portraits are often beguiling, they're equally misleading without the backstory. By accurately decoding and historicizing Sherman's work, we can begin a reconciliation with the 100+ years of disconnect between the photos as object/artifact and the individual, human lives peering out from the surface of the gelatin silver prints. Sherman's work endures, so it's long overdue for the subjects of his photos to get proper contextualization.
Sherman's work is often lauded because of the ethnic diversity of his sitters. The range is indeed broad and appears to neatly correspond to the America-as-melting-pot myth and reflect the multiethnic, multiracial, multi-religious nature of its citizenry. Unfortunately, some of the melting pot diversity apparent in Sherman's work begins to get more complicated after matching identity to the anonymous "immigrant types" he assigned. While thousands of Afro Caribbeans successfully passed through Ellis Island during the early 1900s—many from English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas—and went on to settle permanently in the U.S., Sherman's "Guadeloupe Women" were not part of this extraordinary but still underexplored facet of black migration.
Sherman clearly differentiated between different "types", but not as to whether his sitters were actual immigrants, non-immigrant aliens, or deportees. He was most interested in capturing ethnic and social diversity; it doesn't seem to have mattered much whether his sitters would be going on to becoming U.S. or Canadian Citizens, or neither. The diversity remains regardless, but at times we see the faces of exclusion and not inclusion.
Most of the individuals in Sherman's Guadeloupe photos appear to have successfully made their way to Canada and then on to the homes of their new employers. Given the massive deportations that took place years later, it remains unclear just how many were able to make a permanent home in Canada. So when we look upon these photos today, in whatever form, the facts that make up the backstory of the subjects' lives should enter the viewer's mind alongside the visual information. Having both simultaneously is the only way to begin to start an understanding of what we're actually looking at, and to do some justice to the subjects themselves.
Notes/Works cited1 Dana Whitney Sherwood and Boulou Ébanda de B'béri, “Unsuitable to Become Canadian: Change and Continuity in Racial Discourse in Canadian Political Consciousness, A Mari Usque Ad Mare, 1850-1965,” in Reid-Maroney, N., Bernard, W. T., & Ébanda B'béri, . B. B. Women in the "Promised Land": Essays in African Canadian history (Toronto : Women's Press, 2018), 187.
2 Tancons, Claire "Women in the Whirlwind: Withholding Guadeloupe's Archipelagic History," Small Axe 1 November 2012; 16 (3 39): 143–165.
3 Besides the deportations, some managed to settle permanently in North America. I traced the path of a woman from the second group of April 1911 arrivals named (Sarah) Valine Pierrot who worked as a domestic in Montreal. She stayed in Canada for nearly 10 years and eventually married a Jamaican-born steel mill worker named Thomas Samuel Weathers, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1921. Sarah and Thomas eventually naturalized as U.S. Citizens, raised a family and remained in the New York City for the rest of their lives.
4 PAC, RG 76, File 731832, M.D. to Fortier, 22 May 1911. Quoted in Calliste, Agnes "Race, Gender and Canadian Immigration Policy: Blacks from the Caribbean, 1900–1932", Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Volume 28, Number 4, Winter 1993-1994, pp. 141-142.
5 Sherwood and de B'béri, 194.
6 NEGRO GIRLS COMING. (1911, Apr 06). The Gazette.
7 CANADA'S RACE SENTIMENT. (1911, Apr 02). New York Times. Available via Internet Archive.
8 DOMESTICS FROM THE WEST INDIES. (1911, Jun 8). The Globe, 6
9 In order to see how inspectors "read" the immigrants who passed through immigration stations—and how scientific racism was woven into immigrant classification—see the entries for "West Indian" and "Negro" in the Dictionary of Races or Peoples, first published by the Immigration Commission in 1911. Here, "Negro" is in part defined as "belonging to the lowest division of mankind from an evolutionary standpoint." The Dictionary was subsequently used as a standard diagnostic tool by immigration inspectors at Ellis Island and Angel Island for decades to come.