From 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island in New York Harbor. One of the missionary societies present on Ellis Island was the Congregational Home Missionary Society (CHMS), which began assisting new arrivals on Ellis Island in 1894.
Found within the CHMS records are a set of files for the General Committee of Missionary and Immigrant Aid Work at Ellis Island. The committee included representatives from Protestant, Catholic and Jewish missionary societies and provided funding and representatives to work with immigrants on the island. It also worked with government officials to appeal on behalf of the immigrants in regard to living conditions, medical care and distribution of relief.
Committee workers helped newly arrived people connect with their relatives and find housing, and provided advice on traveling. An important figure among these files is Jennie F. Pratt (center in this picture), a social worker from New Jersey who spent more than 30 years assisting immigrants and deportees on the island.
In 1921, the U.S. Immigration Service asked the Board of Home Missions of the Congregational Christian Churches to organize a school and playground on Ellis Island. In April of that year, Henry M. Bowen, director of Foreign Speaking Work of the CHMS, wrote to Mrs. Pratt:
“At the suggestion of Colonel Helen R. Bastedo [of the Salvation Army], I am writing you asking if you would care to consider a proposition relating to some work which we hope to undertake at Ellis Island.” As seen in this letter, Pratt accepted the invitation.
Included within many of Pratt’s reports and letters are personal accounts of individual children and adults under her charge and stories of their backgrounds and families and their current circumstances on Ellis Island. She relates the stories of children from Central America, Asia and from throughout Europe.
During World War II, her reports included accounts of those deemed “enemy aliens” – Japanese, Germans and Italians from the East Coast – who were interned at Ellis Island. Through her descriptions, Mrs. Pratt humanizes the many individuals and families who passed through the island.
The Amistad Research Center’s collections include a series of photographs of Ellis Island taken during the early 1920s, which document the school and playground that were established there, as well as children from all over the world who arrived and departed from the Island.
When Ellis Island closed in 1954, immigration and naturalization services were transferred to a federal building in New York City and Mrs. Pratt continued her work there. The last letter from her in the records at Amistad is dated around 1963. In it, she writes of the many people she has seen over the past year:
“Some are students, visitors, folks paroled into the country, seamen here illegally, and some have fallen in distress before the five year period in the country. Some have used fraudulent documents or committed crimes or are persons needing to adjust to their status in the country…We must remember no matter what the problem is, they are all human beings.”
Through her years of work on Ellis Island, Jennie F. Pratt seems to have taken the idea of seeking “justice for every resident, citizen or not” to heart – a notion for us all to consider in today’s world.
Digital exhibition curated by Phillip Cunningham. Based on a physical exhibition, "I Know Them as People, Not as Figures: Narratives and Images of American Immigration," curated by Christopher Harter that ran from September 23, 2019 through February 29, 2020 at the Amistad Research Center. Images come from the American Missionary Association archives addenda and the Congregational Home Missionary Society records.