Award-winning Journalist Penny Fletcher, Author, Editor & Blogger

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Look to the Past to Help Determine the Future

Posted on November 4, 2018 at 4:00 PM

Maybe it was because I was adopted from an orphanage and didn’t know anything about myself other than the date and place of my birth, that I became interested in projects like allowing adoptees to open their sealed records, genealogy, and DNA testing. During years of off and on search, I found some interesting things about both my birth and adoptive families that eventually led me to respect people of all races and religions. That knowledge is why I see a different kind of America than many I know.

    My first contact with my birth family was when I learned about my Grandmother Kathleen Mary O’Reilly coming from Ireland with her son Paul. He was my birth father; a Merchant Marine who later fought in both World War II and Vietnam. I learned that she and her family came during the time most of the Irish men got off the ship at Ellis Island, and (unless they’d paid for a first-class ticket) came out of the bottoms of the boats and were handed two papers, one granting citizenship and the other immediate induction into the U.S. Army.

    My adoptive father’s family escaped from Russia in 1917 during the Bolshevick Revolution when the streets ran with the blood of the Czars who had oppressed the people. Some of their family’s last name was Rabinovitzky and some Rabinowitz. This was probably due to the persecution of Jews; I figured the “zky” was added somewhere in Poland to blend in, but then, that’s just a guess. My adoptive father, who was born in 1908, graduated college at 17, shortened his last name to the first five letters and spent his life as a small-town, one-room-office lawyer who worked weekends and took calls from people he probably knew could never pay him, long after he left the public defender’s office.

    Later in life I found a stepbrother, who sent me a diary about my birth mother, Pauline, whose Native American name was Running Water. She and her husband Greywolf, an Apache Chief and Medicine Man were active in Indian rights and traveled around the country helping the tribes with the bureaucracy, and once, even met with President Jimmy Carter over broken treaties.

    The fourth and last piece of parenthood I learned about was my adoptive mother, whose family dated back to the Colonies. Her grandfather was American Revolutionary hero Peter Wyckoff, captured in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. He was held as a prisoner in the British Prisoner of War camp located in Quebec, Canada. This record can be found in the book entitled "Rebel Prisoners at Quebec 1778-1783 by Chris McHenry," in 1981 copied from original sources in Canada and England.

    Long after finding these facts, I had my DNA processed and found some really interesting things, adding Middle Eastern, Iberian, Italian and both North and sub-Saharan African to the mix. With this background, there was simply no way I could ever have had a prejudice or not felt a tug for the poor and disenfranchised.

    Do you know where your roots come from? If you’re an American, I’ll bet you’re a “mutt” too.

    We can’t look at the group making its way toward our southern borders as a “caravan of potential terrorists.” If you look far enough back (in my case one generation as I was born in 1945) you came that same way; unless of course, you’re 100-percent of Black African descent, most of whom didn’t have any choice in coming here.

    We are a land of immigrants. We just need to learn how to process people, like they did back then. From 1794 to 1890, the States regulated who entered as immigrants, after they’d landed in Castle Garden, in The Battery in New York. That was used as the immigration hold for “vetting” from 1855 to 1890 and served 8 million immigrants that I’m pretty sure the Native Americans – who were left after our many massacres over land- didn’t want here.

    In 1892, the federal government had to get involved with immigration and Ellis Island was built, opening its doors to the teeming masses coming off the ships, and for the next 62 years, processed 12 million refugees.

    I’ll bet the Native Americans didn’t like that either.

    Money was always the key, even back that far. Those who had paid for first class tickets came in without problems, but those who traveled n steerage- unsanitary conditions in the hold of the ship- (anybody not seen the movie Titanic?) were sent to Ellis Island to be processed, and the old processing center in the Battery in New York was used for paperwork and people were sent there in groups so they could be properly handled.

    Although Ellis Island is often referred to as the “Island of Tears,” there is evidence, and old stories passed through families I have met in my long career as a journalist that people were treated rather well there, especially after their terrible trip to get here. Oh, it was crowded, and food was often scarce, but they wanted to be American citizens badly enough to do whatever they had to do to be given a second chance at life.

    The World Wars slowed immigration and in 1954, Ellis Island was closed. Then In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson made the island a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Its base was added later, after money was raised in a project led by poet Emma Lazarus who wrote a sonnet in 1883 titled “The New Colossus,” specifically to get the words engraved on the statue’s base.

    It reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

    America wasn’t “ready” for the millions who came through Ellis Island, but they built facilities to handle the people properly. They did not send out troops to frighten them away. And if they had, where would they have gone? Could they have jumped back into the sea and drowned?

    I ask where will the Central and South American families go now, the mothers and their babies and the young men who only want honest work in the crop fields, and shelter and a simple warm meal. Where would you like them to go, back to countries where gang members have leveled their homes and consistently beat their men and rape their mothers, wives, and children?

    Why not have the troops that are being sent to the southern border begin construction? Call in the carpenters and steelworkers and general labor and create a structure where this new group of frightened homeless can be housed until vetted and released in proportion to states that have space for them?

    We killed thousands of Native Americans to take this land, the least we can do is share it with    those who need asylum like we’ve always done before. Surely we are not so far removed from our roots to be hardened to that.

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Reply Carol Oschmann
5:17 PM on November 25, 2018 
so true