They came by sea, poor and destitute, seeking this land of opportunity. They were the whites and Jews of Europe fleeing to America, this place of liberty and equality. They fled from religious persecution, starvation, overcrowded cities and a lack of opportunities.
The period was somewhere between 1892-1943 and as the ship pulled into Ellis Island in New York’s City harbor, its deck became crowded with people, some chattering noisily, others silently awaiting their fate. These men, women and children had endured much for this moment and were fearful that all might be lost for some shortcoming.
Numbered, lettered and bundled according to the ship’s documentation, the immigrants were herded into the Customs Wharf. Here officials gave instructions in different languages, directing them where to go. Lines were formed for inspection.
The immigrants were chalked, poked, pushed, labeled, and sometimes even locked in cages as the officials carried out their inspection. These immigrants were subjected to torment, as they were examined for deformity, contagious diseases, mental defects and other abnormalities deemed undesirable for American Citizenship.
But be that as it may, the European was still treated as a human being, unlike the Black souls from Africa who came here some centuries before.
Abducted, imprisoned in holding cells, then forcibly put on ships bound for the Americas, the black man became a product of the white slave trade. The bites of the fleas, the itching of body lice, the chaining in his feces, were measures used to make him more subservient to the white man. The African was thrown into a strange world. A world encompassed by a vast body of rolling blue water. A world where pale skinned men with bright scars, missing limbs and toothless grins ruled. An unsteady world on board a huge “canoe” with flapping sails and cracking whips.
Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty will not be theirs. Still enchained, they were whipped ashore not for interrogation but to be sold to the higher bidder.
The white immigrants stepped off Ellis Island and entered a world of immense opportunities. He entered a world of his own choosing. To the far west was California which with its warm vast landscape, punctuated by coller valleys, was suitable for a variety of industries. The Mid-west had millions of acres of flat fertile prairie land which was heaven to the farmer. The Eastern coast had thriving cities and plenty of opportunities for the skilled and unskilled worker.
Millions came through Ellis Island and found a home; whether it be the West, Midwest or East. These Europeans worked hard and gave birth to a new industrialized, nation. The history books indicated that these single-handedly gave birth to the automobile, electrical and shoe industries naming just a few. America became a super power and a leader among nations.
The Negro slave stepped off the auction block into the grip of his white master. Months before, he had been taken from his family; now he was being thrust into a “family” not of his choosing but from which there seem to be no escape. The slave would be taught by the whip when and how to work, when and for how long to sleep, when and what to eat. The white master became the god of the slave’s life and in time to come would be held almost in reverence by the Negro.
Held firmly in the white man’s grasp, the Negro slaves were directed to the cotton fields, the cane fields, the stable, the pantry and were forced to perform every menial task believed to be below the dignity of the white man. As the black man became familiar with his surroundings, his pride, dignity and desire for freedom resurfaced. He rebelled. Like the Marrons of Jamaica, who ran away to the hills and learned guerrilla warfare, he constantly attacked the white man. The black man had no desire to provide slave labor and was therefore dubbed the “lazy nigger.”
After slavery, the blacks were subjected to another form of enslavement, that of racism. They were again directed to the menial jobs—Janitors, Chauffeurs, maids, chimney sweeps, and gardeners. Their kids were sent to overcrowded third-rate schools and many were even deprived of an education. Yet, out of this misery, many black Americans stood up and stoop out in our American History.
We Are All Americans
The differences in how we became Americans in this country is written in our History books. Even though there may have been suffering on all sides, it is obvious that the lines were clearly drawn and America was built on these differences. Yet the spirit, essence, and strength of this country emerged through those who survived slavery and racism and rose above every barrier and circumstances that they had to face.
Yes we are all Americans. We have all earned the right to be called Americans.