It’s June, in case you hadn’t noticed, and everyone I know is in end-of-the-school-year mode – finishing assessments, scoring, grading, writing reports, cleaning, organizing, etc. Somewhere in all of the June busy-ness, take a few minutes to reflect on the past year and marvel at what you have accomplished: teaching and guiding students, learning new standards and assessments and maintaining relationships with students and colleagues. No small feat, my friends! Job well done!
A couple of weeks ago, I was able to go on a three day field experience to New York City with 27 teachers as part of this year’s Teaching American History grant. We packed a lot of historical thinking into those three days, along with numerous lessons in how to maneuver around Manhattan with 28 people and a big green bus in 95 degree heat! Let’s just say, it wasn’t easy, but we made it work. The focus of our trip was immigration, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We spent time with Dr. Hasia Diner of NYU who spoke to us about the immigrant experience and the similarities between the different waves of immigration to America. At the National Archives, we worked with primary documents such as passenger abstracts, ship manifests, and photographs from Ellis Island (which we were unable to visit due to damage from Hurricane Sandy) to explore who the immigrants were and how they arrived and were accepted into the United States. We got a big-picture view of Manhattan, and close ups of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty as we cruised the Hudson and East Rivers during a beautiful sunset. We spent an incredible day at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, where we were immersed in the immigrant experience in a re-creation of a tenement apartment and a tasting of some of the immigrant foods that have left their mark on American culture. We took a walking tour of Washington Square, including the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire where young immigrant women worked and died, and finally spent a wonderful morning at the Museum of Modern Art looking at art related to the 1913 Armory show, the first large exhibition of modern art in America, before heading back to Central New York. It was a weekend full of lessons and learning, sights and insights and a lot of walking! So where, you might be wondering, is the historical thinking connection? As we were listening to Dr. Diner, looking at documents at the National Archives, interacting with the guides and interpreters at the Tenement Museum, and exploring Washington Square and MoMA, I heard about the experiences of immigrants coming to this country and the obstacles they faced – learning a new language, navigating an unfamiliar culture, often leaving rural homes to live in congested, urban places, trying to find new ways to earn money and support themselves and their families, dealing with prejudice from residents who branded them lazy, uneducated strangers who were taking jobs away from those who already lived here – and I was reminded of the challenges that immigrants face today in America. Today’s immigrants come from different locations on the map than they did 100 years ago, but they face similar barriers when they arrive. It seems that the current anti-immigrant rhetoric is eerily similar to what was said and written in the early 1900s. This excerpt is taken from a report written in 1911 by the Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York: “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.” This report was cited in a letter from residents of the Lower East Side in Manhattan to President Taft objecting to the report’s language and its potential use to justify the restriction of immigrants coming to the United States. At each of our stops throughout the weekend, it struck me that we’ve been through this whole process before and more than once if you count the different waves of immigrants who arrived in America – the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the eastern Europeans, and so on, but we seem to think that immigration is a new problem in the 21st century. The reality is that many of us, including my husband and his family, are descended from ancestors who lived through that Ellis Island experience. Some researchers say as many as 40% of Americans can claim a connection with that experience, a figure doesn’t take into account the immigrants who arrived in other ports throughout the country. What became clear to me was that understanding our history as a “nation of immigrants” is not only enormously relevant but critical to understanding our present immigration issues.
Of course we cannot completely equate the past and the present, because the situations are not identical and times have changed. But neither should we refuse to learn from what has happened in the past to inform our understanding of what is going on now. As William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. In fact it’s not even past.” Indeed.