Jennie F. Pratt: Ellis Island’s “Miss Liberty”


The alien and the foreign born often labor under a heavy handicap. Never more so than in times of unemployment and economic depression. As the programs outlined below indicate, many groups are demanding a stricter rather than a more flexible immigration policy. Church people need to scrutinize these policies, to follow legislation as it is proposed in the coming session of Congress, and to seek justice for every resident, citizen or not.

From the December 1930 issue of Church and Society, published by The Department of Social Relations of the Congregational Education Society.

They crowd against the high iron fence which…separates them from the Promised Land. Hundreds of them in a week, thousands in a month – refugees, D.P.’s, detainees. They have come so far, from such hunger and misery! They have hoped for so long!...Outraged, frightened, ashamed, one says to himself, ‘I am decent and law abiding and America is no police state. Why am I locked up?’

From “Strangers No Longer,” published by the Missions Council of the Congregational Christian Churches, April 1951.

Without their identified sources, the statements above could very easily be mistaken as being part of the current debate on immigration in the United States. Discussions of stricter immigration policy, detainees and fences have filled national news coverage, political discourse in the U.S. and our private conversations over the past two years. Last year, as images of children detained in metal cages at an immigration processing center in McAllen, Texas, began to circulate, I recalled a series of photographs housed at the Amistad Research Center showing immigrant children on Ellis Island in the 1920s. While the reality of the upheaval faced by individuals and families while passing through Ellis Island, either as immigrants or deportees should not be overlooked, the photographs of children being taught and playing outside in the photographs stood in stark contrast to those reflecting the current immigration policy that I saw in newspapers and online.

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 housed at Amistad, 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. Additionally, committee workers helped newly arrived people connect with their relatives, find housing and provided advice on traveling, particularly for young women who were traveling alone. An important figure among these files is Jennie F. Pratt, 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.” Pratt accepted the invitation and began her work in June 1921.

The Ellis Island files contain a large number of letters and reports from Mrs. Pratt to various missionary and government officials detailing her work and others’. On September 14, 1921, she wrote in a lengthy report:

While I have been at the school we had about one hundred and sixty children a day. We give in the school about forty pieces of clothing a day. We give about 30 pieces of clothing a day in the detention rooms. We have a school at Ellis Island, but that is only one part of our work as we help in the Detention Rooms. We give our time to them in writing [letters], sending telegrams, trying to get the welfare societies to push their case thru so they will not remain on the Island long. We try to cheer the mothers and children as they are frightened and do not know what is going to happen to them.

Mrs. Pratt’s report, one of many, continues for twelve handwritten pages, noting that more than 900 pieces of clothing had been given out since she started her position. With such a workload, it is not surprising that she wrote earlier in September, “Dear Rev. Bowden: Could I have a vacation as I feel I need one badly? My classes at Ellis Island have been large. A little rest would help me for my fall work.”

Included within many of Pratt’s reports and letters are personal accounts of individual children and adults under her charge, 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 include 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 throngs of individuals and families who passed through the island.

Also found within the CHMS records are numerous articles written by and about Mrs. Pratt, which provide glimpses into her background and work. Included is a reprint of an article published in the April 1953 issue of Coronet that dubbed her “Mrs. Liberty of Ellis Island” and relates her father’s own immigrant experience as the reason for her dedication to her work with the children and families on Ellis 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.

More information on the records related to Ellis Island in the Congregational Home Missionary Society Records can be found here. The images from Ellis Island are held in the American Missionary Photograph Collection and are viewable through Amistad’s digital collections here.

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