An Island of Hope and Tears: Erasing History on Ellis Island by Maxine Whitney

According to author Jill Ogline, the reason the Liberty Bell has become one of America’s most important and well recognized icons is because it is “a tangible “piece of history” electrified by a surrounding web of legend” (Ogline, 52). A much larger icon that could be described in a similar fashion is Ellis Island, the checkpoint for immigration into the land of the American dream from 1892- 1954. As visitors walk the halls of this isolated landmark, they are taken back to a time where people from all around the world believed that America, particularly New York, was a place where the streets were lined with gold and and the job opportunities were endless. This site continues to be a mecca that Americans are willing to travel to see because “the desire for an emotional connection with the past is a prime motivator in drawing visitors to historic sites”.

Even though the history of the Liberty Bell is still argued, and its importance and worth stem mostly from myth, both the bell and that famous crack connect American’s to their past and the very beginning days of their nation. In an article written by Gary B. Nash, he explains that even before it had cracked the bell had become a symbol, being appropriated by some into a symbol of anti-slavery as well as American freedom and Liberty. However, as discussed in Ogline’s piece, the feeling of liberty and freedom that the bell exudes today is covering up a dark past.

The Liberty Bell visiting center lies on top of the ruins of America’s first president’s home, specifically the section where his 8 slaves resided when they were not tending the field across the way. Even though the Park’s service assures critics that it was not a conscious decision to place the Bell on a slave sight, that does not excuse the blatant lack of discussion of slavery within the Liberty bell exhibit. The Park’s service would rather move that discussion, to a place where it hardly makes any sense, than move the Liberty Bell, essentially and physically covering up that part of history.

Ellis Island does not deny the sadder stories of it’s past. The website for Ellis Island, which is also run by the National Parks Service, calls the landmarks “Island of Hope, Island of Tears”.  There are several exhibits explaining exactly what happened if you were not cleared to enter the U.S and even stories of families who were separated. However, similar to the case of the Liberty Bell, the actual area where these tragedies occurred is left out of the exhibit. A New York times article pointed out that the main part of the museum where the story is told is only one of the 33 buildings on Ellis Island. The rooms and buildings where the sick and disabled were left behind for “treatment” and “rehabilitation” are not only off limits, but they have been neglected to the point of significant decay, essentially erasing that part of the story.

Even though both of these icons have their flaws, that is part of what makes them such important American icons. American’s will always need something physical to connect them to their past, and both of these do hold historical significance. Also, their problematic nature inspires really important narratives that allow American’s to critique and educate themselves and others.

Nash, Gary B. “The Bell Becomes an Icon.” Chapter 2. The Liberty Bell. N.p.: Integrated Publishing Solutions, 2010. 31-75. Print.

The National Parks Service. “Ellis Island.” National Parks Service. The National Parks Service: U.S Department of Interior, n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2016. <>.

The New York Times. “Ghosts of Ellis Island.” The New York Times: Opinion Pages. The New York Times Company, 8 Sept. 2001. Web. 4 Feb. 2016. <>.

Ogline, Jill. “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy.” The Public Historian 26.3 (2004): 49-57. JSTOR. Web. 4 Feb. 2016. <>.

Images from:

1st Ellis Island Picture is from the Untapped Cities website:

2nd Image is of one of the hospital buildings taken by Stephen Wilkes, presented on the NPR website:

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