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Part II: The Fight Against the Ellis Island Museum


Ellis Island Museum

Ellis Island Museum

Part I of this blog can be read here.

The plan to sell Ellis Island to the highest bidder didn’t exactly work out as well as government officials had hoped.  Private citizens and elected officials alike quickly spoke out against the sale.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s office was suddenly flooded with letters from immigrants who had entered the United States through Ellis Island, pleading with the President to preserve the Island as a memorial.  New York City Mayor Robert Wagner sent a telegram to Eisenhower expressing his disapproval, while one congressmen who had been involved in the push to make Ellis Island a national shrine facetiously suggested that the Statue of Liberty should be next on the auction block.  The sale quickly failed in the wake of these complaints, but for a more pressing reason; none of the sealed bids came anywhere close to the $6 million price tag the General Services Administration (GSA) had suggested for the Island and all of its buildings.

While the letter writers and politicians got their wish, not everyone was pleased when the GSA cancelled the sale.  The sale has been a welcome development for the founders and funders of the American Museum of Immigration (AMI) on Liberty Island, who were afraid that an Ellis Island museum would draw money and attention from their plans.  Conceived in the 1950s as the nation’s first historic site dedicated to immigration, the AMI was designed to highlight the success of the American melting pot.  The original plans included a series of dioramas tracing American immigration from the 18th century to the mid-20th, including a life-size model of a Lower East Side tenement recreated from Jacob Riis photos.  The founders imagined the Museum as a donor-driven project and with minimal government support, expecting American immigrant groups to embrace the Museum with donations of both personal artifacts and money.  Instead, when donations failed to materialize, and the AMI opened in 1972 with a scaled-down exhibit that relied heavily on smaller models and photography.

The AMI leadership was so threatened by the resurgence of the Ellis Island Museum idea that they took every opportunity to block its creation, from bad press to political sabotage.  AMI leadership painted Ellis Island as a place of sadness and horrors, while suggesting Liberty Island as a more suitable memorial location, “a happy place of continuing inspiration, not a depository of bad memories.”  While the press wars continued unabated for decades, political machinations were even more effective.  During one major meeting to determine the Island’s fate, the first mention of a museum project sent AMI leaders scattering to quickly deliver a package of anti-museum materials to the committee staff behind the scenes.  There was no further conversation on the topic.

Despite these attempts, efforts continued to officially recognize the Island’s historic value.  Arguing that the story of American immigration was not appropriately commemorated through the National Park System, NPS declared Ellis Island a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965.  The next year, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  By 1968, the NPS was even cautiously promoting the idea of an Ellis Island Museum, but was careful to note that the museum would tell only the stories of the immigrants who landed on the Island, not the “broad, general” story that could be found at AMI.

Even as the National Park Service and the AMI board grudgingly agreed to let the Ellis Island museum project proceed, the struggle to determine the symbolic meaning and use of the Island continued.  In March of 1970, enabled by the Island’s lack of security, a Native American group launched a plan to occupy Ellis Island.  Following on the heels of several Native American takeovers and demonstrations for the right to self-determination, including a year-long occupation of Alcatraz, 38 people, representing 14 tribes, set out to reach Ellis Island by boat from Jersey City.  The occupation attempt proved unsuccessful, however, when the boat’s motor failed.  None of the protesters ever made it to the Island, which quickly received a Coast Guard security detail.

Despite the Coast Guard presence, the next attempt to occupy the Island came only months later.  Thomas W. Matthew, the head of the National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization (NEGRO), petitioned President Nixon for permission to improve and use the Island as a home for a self-sustaining black community.  With no response from the White House, Matthew and 60 of his followers quietly moved onto the Island and began improving it.  They were ignored by the Coast Guard, and their work only came to light when they were discovered by the press several months later.  In 1971, the National Park Service granted them five years to execute their plan, but most members left in the cold winter months.  In 1974, Matthews was convicted of Medicaid fraud, and the NEGRO project came to a definitive end.

Realizing that they needed to take control of the Island, the National Park Service began giving small group tours of the ruined buildings in 1977.  The hour long ranger-led tours, which came complete with disclaimers about weak floorboards and falling plaster, were overwhelmingly popular, making it clear that there was demand for stabilized and restored buildings.  Unfortunately, according to a National Parks Service estimate, repairing and stabilizing the buildings would cost at least $25 million, with a full renovation costing up to $100 million.

Funding came in fits and starts from federal and state governments as well as private donations; the 6-year renovation project ultimately cost $160 million. The main building was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990, as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with an exhibit closely tied to the history of the Island.  As the AMI leadership had feared, their museum officially closed in 1991.  Without the specter of the AMI to curtail its story, Ellis Island’s newest exhibit opened in 2015, covering the breadth of American immigration history for the first time.  The Island now welcomes over 2 million visitors a year.

Info on the history of Ellis Island and the AMI was drawn primarily from contemporary press, as well as Joan Fragaszy Troyano’s upcoming book, Seeing a Nation of Immigrants: Photographs and the Making of American Identity, and Barbara Blumberg’s 1985 Administrative History of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.