Author Vincent Cannato Leads Talk Attendees on a Return to Ellis Island Through Historic Facts and Photos

By Mary Sanderson

The Friends of the North End Library (FONEL) sponsored a fascinating talk by author and history professor, Vincent Cannato on Wednesday, March 6th at the North End branch of the Boston Public Library.

The cold weather did nothing to dampen the spirits of the packed house, with over 50 people enjoying Vincent’s informative talk and slide show. Vincent discussed his book American Passage: the History of Ellis Island and brought history to life through his slides and stories that track this interesting period in American history.

Vincent provided background on the unparalleled history of immigration through Ellis Island. Approximately 75% of all immigrants came through Ellis Island, as compared with the 15% that came through Boston and Baltimore, with an increase from 1870 through 1925 with the second “industrial revolution.” With the U.S. government in charge, a series of immigration laws were enacted over the years. They started in 1882, with a ban on convicts and “lunatics” and a Chinese exclusion. More exclusions were put in place with the 1891 Immigration Act, including for insanity, disease, felons and polygamists. 1903 saw the addition of anarchists, and 1907 added morality considerations. 1917 added the Asiatic barred zone.

With the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, a system was put into place to manage the large number of people that needed to be processed through “the system.”  Upon arrival, immigrants were tagged, watched by inspectors and doctors, and met with a registry clerk with the shipping manifests listing all of the people hoping to immigrate. There were interpreters to help with a literacy test. If you passed all criteria, you entered your new country – if not, you were either held or denied entry. Additional exclusions included: likely to become a public charge (the most likely reason, as subjective as it might have been, for exclusion); disease; contract labor (the unions did not want you to say you had a job in hand); moral turpitude; mental defective (there was intelligence testing, and eugenics came into play).

Vincent’s telling of the history, punctuated by dramatic and sometimes bittersweet accounts of the immigrants, brought this important part of our country’s history to life.

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