Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Peek into Ellis Island

Last week Sarah and I paid a visit to the Minnesota Historical Society to check out their exhibit of photographs from Ellis Island. Augustus Frederick Sherman was a humble clerk, but when new arrivals were detained for further questioning, he often made photographs of them. The results are a stunning cross section of people who came to this country in search of a better life.

I was taken with the details of their clothing, at a time when every garment was made by hand by someone you knew. Silver bullets sewn into the costumes of the Cossack soldiers, their heads adorned with wooly caps. Protestant Finnish women in elaborate wimples seeking religious freedom away from their Catholic homeland. A gentleman decked out in lederhosen complete with woolen socks, a jaunty hat and beautifully embroidered vest.

The exhibit was small and very little is known about most of those pictured. That lent an air of intrigue and possibility. I found myself wondering what these people were thinking on the day they arrived here- exhausted from an agonizing sea voyage that probably took months.

For many, the stop at Ellis Island marked only a halfway point in the journey as they carried farther west. (This certainly makes me re-consider my moaning and groaning about flying coach!) Since those in these portraits were detained for further questioning, anxiety and worry are apparent.

I was also struck by the individuality of each portrait. Each person brought a unique experience with which to forge a new identity for themselves in a strange land. Our is truly a nation of disparate people drawn together by freedom. I think we can all use reminders of that.

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