Deep inside the National Archives in Washington, D.C., old case files tell the stories of hundreds of thousands of hopeful immigrants to the U.S. between 1880 and the end of World War II.
These stories are in the form of original documents and photographs that were often attached to immigrant case files. Many of them are part of a new exhibit at the Archives, called "Attachments."
For University of Minnesota history professor Erika Lee, one of these attachments turned out to be very special.
When she was in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-1990s, she was researching the Exclusion Era, a period in which Chinese immigration to the U.S. was severely restricted.
Lee called library after library looking for primary source material but came up empty. Then she called the National Archives in San Bruno, Calif.
"I was expecting the usual 'No, I'm sorry,' and to my surprise, the archivist there said, 'Yeah! We have about 70,000 individual immigrant case files that have just been released to the public'," Lee said.
There were boxes and boxes of files. Too many to count. The first file she asked to see was her own family's. When she opened it, her grandmother's wedding photograph fell out.
"As a historian, this was like a breakthrough discovery of a lifetime, and then, just as a granddaughter, it was extremely emotional," Lee said.
The Wedding Photograph
The black and white photo from 1926, which is now featured in the National Archives exhibit, shows Lee's grandparents looking straight into the camera.
Her grandfather, Yee Shew Ning, is smiling in his tuxedo at the entrance of a Chinese Methodist Church in Guangzhou, China. Her grandmother, Wong Lan Fong, is wearing a collared-silk dress and wedding veil. She looks like she's trying to smile. She has one arm wrapped around her husband's and is carrying a bouquet of flowers.
Bruce Bustard, senior curator for the exhibit, says the photo looks like a typical wedding photograph — until you look a little closer. A five-digit number on a corner of the photo is Fong's immigration case file number and also the number of the steamship that Lee's grandparents arrived on 85 years ago.
"Chinese immigrants really looked to the United States. They called it Gum Saan, or Gold Mountain," Lee said. "The United States was seen as the place where you could make your dreams come true."
Immigration From China
It was far from a golden arrival. Following U.S. legislation cracking down on immigration from China beginning in 1882, most Chinese arrivals were held in detention for long periods. Women often were suspected of being low-class laborers or even prostitutes.
Lee's grandfather knew his wife would have to overcome these stereotypes before immigration officials would authorize her entry into the U.S. So he saved his wages from his laundry business for an entire year to purchase a first-class ticket for his wife.
"He was really put through the wringer," Lee said. "And I became angry as I learned more about this injustice of how Chinese immigrants were treated during this time period."
Lee was recently named director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and is co-author of Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America.
David Ferriero, who is archivist of the United States, says immigration has always been a topic of conversation and debate in this country.
"Some of the stories that are being told [in the National Archives exhibit] in terms of treatment of individuals are still very much the same stories that are being told today," Ferriero says.
Lee says that too often, the conversation focuses on the conflicts between people on either side of the immigration debate, and she hopes the new exhibit will remind people both of the "conflicts and promise" of immigration.
The exhibit is scheduled to run through Sept. 4.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
At the National Archives here in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit charts the stories of 19th and early 20th century immigrants to America. Curators of the exhibit went deep into the Archives to find old case files of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and the stories those files tell. NPR's Tasnim Shamma visited the archives and brings us one of those stories.
TASNIM SHAMMA, BYLINE: The exhibit is called "Attachments," and it tells the story behind the original documents and photographs often attached to immigrant case files. Erika Lee is a history professor at the University of Minnesota. She found a very special attachment while visiting the Archives. The first file she asked to see was her family's. When she opened it, her grandmother's wedding photograph fell out.
So as a historian, this was like a breakthrough discovery of a lifetime. And then, just as a granddaughter, it was extremely emotional.
The black and white photo from 1926 shows Lee's grandparents looking straight into the camera. In the photo, Lee's grandfather, Yee Shew Ning, sports a tuxedo. Her grandmother, Wong Lan Fong, wears a collared silk dress and a wedding veil. It looks like a typical wedding photograph, until you look a little closer.
BRUCE BUSTARD: The thing that is really different is that if you look at the detail of the photograph, you can see the number that the immigration authorities wrote on the photograph that is the number of her immigration file.
SHAMMA: That's Bruce Bustard. He's senior curator of the exhibit. He points at the five-digit number on a corner of the photo. It's the immigration case file number. It's also the number of the ship Lee's grandparents arrived on 85 years ago. At the time, Chinese immigrant women were routinely held in detention for long periods by immigration officials. They were often suspected of being prostitutes. Lee's grandfather knew his wife would have to overcome these stereotypes before immigration officials would authorize his wife's entry, so he saved his wages from his laundry business for an entire year to purchase a first class ticket for his wife, and he documented everything.
ERIKA LEE: He really, you know, was put through the wringer.
SHAMMA: Lee found the photograph and her family's paperwork among tens of thousands of immigration case files at the National Archives. Archivist of the United States David Ferrerio says he's excited about the new discoveries that this exhibit will inspire.
DAVID FERRERIO: One of the things that I'm proudest of is the fact that this is an opportunity to educate people about the ability to do their own family research using the records.
SHAMMA: You don't have to be a professional historian like Erika Lee to learn more about your own family history. If you're at least 14 years old, you can come in to the National Archives, put on some white cotton gloves and access millions of photos and files, from census records to ship passenger lists. For NPR News, I'm Tasnim Shamma.
RAZ: And to see the wedding photograph of Erika Lee's grandparents and others in the exhibit, check out our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.