An immigrant’s first look

Published 9:27 am Monday, November 7, 2016

by James D. Howell

She has stood steady in the wind, she has faced wars on several continents, she has held the lamp of freedom high in sunlight and snowstorm. The light has never wavered or flickered. She’s out there today, and I’m going to see her and I’m going to walk where countless others have walked when they arrived in this country.

I take the subway from midtown down to Battery Park. During Colonial times, what is now Manhattan Island was a Dutch settlement, New Amsterdam. The southern end of the island was fortified for protection against seaborne assault. The defensive canons are long gone, but the name remains: “Battery Park.” This area has had many uses following the various wars associated with independence.

I exit the subway into brilliant sunlight; New York harbor is straight ahead. Over there, to my right is the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; to my left is the East River and Governor’s Island. In the distance, the tall cable towers of the Verrazano Narrows bridge can be dimly seen.

I purchase my tickets at the booth and wait for the ferry with other visitors. This is a twofer day. Both the Statue and Ellis Island are together on one National Park Service tour. The ferry runs a routine schedule from here to the statue, Ellis Island, and back on about every half hour. People can spend as much time as they like at both or either parks, and catch the next ferry back to Battery Park.

It’s a bright blue, somewhat light hazy summer day; the New York skyline is prominent across our wake. I like the open top deck of this boat. There are several benches fixed to the deck and people are free to move about as they wish. The sight of the Statue of Liberty getting closer is a moving experience.

Immigrants arriving would see the statue first as they round the far entrance to the harbor. I play movie scenes over in my head , trying to get a feel of what it must have been like. The exact emotion eludes me. Mine has been a life of relative comfort and freedom of thought and actions. The people coming to this land were fleeing undesirable social and economic oppression in their native countries. Try as I can, I cannot imagine their experience.

Today, the Lady of Liberty, as she has since her birth, holds the lamp steady. In her left arm she cradles a tablet, with July 4, 1776 carved on its face in Roman numerals. She was a gift from the people of France, an ally during the War for Independence a substantial trading partner on the world stage. Following the American Civil War, French sculptor, Frédéric Bartholdi and others decided to create the monument to celebrate. The design and execution was an evolution over many years.

The arm and torch were finished first and was shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The separate arm moved to New York for a few years to enhance fundraising efforts before returning to France to join the rest of her body.

Meanwhile in New York, funds were raised and the foundation was built to support the huge monument. A poet, Emma Lazarus, donated the well known words “Give me your tired, your poor…” as a greeting for the base.

I walk the grounds and visit the small museum inside the base. I catch the ferry over to Ellis Island.

We arrive at the dock as millions have before us. The building itself and the entry have not changed. Inside, it’s something like a large gymnasium; mostly empty floor space where immigration officials set up tables and screens in a somewhat orderly manner. Papers were checked and registered; health screenings sought to minimize disease spread. Many people left the hall with a new name, or new spelling. It was done not in anger; rather, it was a case of not understanding the pronunciation by the immigrant.

Persons of wealth did not come to Ellis Island. If they had a “sponsor” or were visiting, they landed and transitioned at the wharf across the harbor. These really were the tired and poor. The new life they sought would bring new challenges and hard work. It would not be an immediate shedding of oppression. It would be the promise of a new life and the promise of liberty that drove them to this place.

I have a new appreciation for the people who passed through Ellis Island and literally built this country. All of us are immigrants to these shores. All of us contribute to the Lady of Liberty’s call.                       

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at