Watch CBS News

Ellis Island sheds light on untold stories of Caribbean immigrants

Untold stories of Caribbean immigrants at Ellis Island
Untold stories of Caribbean immigrants at Ellis Island 06:56

NEW YORK - Ellis Island is best known as the location where millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia arrived in the United States, but less known is that it's also where hundreds of thousands of Black people entered from the Caribbean.

CBS2's Maurice DuBois spoke to a family in Queens about their American journey of discovery.

"How amazing are these documents?" DuBois asked. "This is when your grandfather got a ticket to come here. And it says he got here on April 26, 1898. When you discovered this, what was that like?"

"It just touch your heart. You know, because we were searching for a long time to find out," said Donna Elam. "We always knew the stories." 

Three generations of descendants of Robert Payne Nero -- granddaughter Donna Elam, her daughter Jaimee Hazel, and great-great-granddaughter Jazzi Rhodes, all now living in Queens. They said little was known about who he was or how he got here, so they made it their mission to find out. 

"It was really a trip to Ellis Island," Rhodes said. "We went on a whim and thought, hey, let's put pop's name into the system. And we found him. We didn't know he came into Ellis Island. We had no idea." 

That emboldened the trio to dig deeper. They knew he had come from Antigua, and that was their next stop. 

"I guess I wanted to know more about my history. Let's go back home. Let's go see," Hazel said. "And we just thought we could look up his information like how we did at Ellis Island, everything's digital. And we were given books.

"They were these humongous ledgers, but they were dusty. And you had to go through the mold, you know, from the storms and stuff like that," Elam said. 

"These books had survived fire, flood, hurricanes, which is really typical down there," DuBois said. 

"All of it," Elam said. 

Ultimately they did not locate his records there, but going through family archives they found another fascinating document: A letter of recommendation. 

"So you needed a reference to come here?" DuBois asked. 

"To get off the island, to get off of Antigua, yes," Hazel said. 

"'He is honest, steady, and'... something?" DuBois read from the letter of recommendation. 

"Civil," Elam said. 

"'Civil-minded,'" DuBois read. 

For unknown reasons, Nero traveled first to England before coming to the U.S. He was 24, settled in Brooklyn, married and had 16 children, 10 of whom survived to adulthood. The extended family went on to varied and impressive careers. Five have doctorates, including Elam and Hazel. Another had a successful photo studio in Harlem. Sons served in the military, and there was even a street in Crown Heights named for a descendant recognizing to his contribution to the community, to name just a few.

DuBois and Ellis Island History Director Stephen Lean walked through the great hall on Ellis Island. 

"Wow. This is, literally, if these walls could talk. That kind of moment," DuBois said. 

"They would have millions of stories to tell. Over 12 million immigrants processed here on Ellis Island," Lean said. 

Based on the most recent census data, nearly 750,000 New Yorkers reported Caribbean ancestry.

About 60% of New Yorkers are immigrants or children of immigrants, but as Lean tells us, there's more to the story.

"What was it like when they arrived? How were they treated? Was it the same? Was it different?" DuBois asked. 

"The people who were physically setting foot on Ellis Island were steerage class. So these were people who didn't have a lot of money. And when you're talking about, during Ellis Island's heyday, you know, 5,000 people a day being processed here, and you talk about the six-second physical that they would have to all uniformly endure. There wasn't a lot of time to treat people differently based on where they were coming from," Lean said. 

"And it wasn't fun," DuBois said. 

"No, it wasn't. A lot of times we hear people come into the center saying, I asked about this when my great-grandfather was still alive. And he told me to mind my business, that he didn't want to talk about it," Lean said. 

In 1921 and 1924, there were immigration quotas enacted. Lean says it was designed to "keep this country looking a certain way."

"Was it, kind of, an 'America First' concept?" DuBois asked. 

"Definitely. And then after 1924, we see a large, like, restricting of people who are able to come into the country. And so, as a result, that's why we end up seeing like the sharp decline of Caribbean immigrants until about 1940, when there's a need for immigrants to come to serve in war efforts, on working in agricultural, military industry, and things like that," said Dr. Tyesha Maddox.

Maddox is an assistant professor of African and African-American Studies who says about 355,000 Caribbean immigrants came through Ellis Island and other eastern ports. And when they did get here, she adds there were other serious issues.

"They come here into a system of structural racism, that they're not used to being relegated to the lowest job opportunities, not being able to work in their professional careers," Maddox said. 

But there were notable exceptions for some Caribbean immigrants as they found a commonality in artistic and intellectual worlds as part of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond – people like Arturo Schomburg, writer Claude McKay and activist Marcus Garvey. 

"Especially in this early period of Caribbean immigration before 1924, a lot of the people coming were middle class, highly educated, and usually had some kind of professional trade or training," Maddox said. "They came here looking for better job opportunities for themselves."

That was the case with Robert Payne Nero, who had been a chef in Antigua. 

"He was coming with this hope, and dream, and everything, and probably felt that when he landed. But then, I said, what did he realize when did get here? Because he ended up being a porter, because Black men, you know, for employment. Remember that letter? He came all the way here with that letter. So for better life and employment and to expand his horizons," Elam said. 

"But you think about this educated, driven, conscientious man of great character coming here to deal with all this, all this racism, basically. And you're relegated to these menial jobs, right?" DuBois said. 

"That's unsettling. To know that, you know, this journey, you finally get there," Elam said. 

But this family knows that Nero's journey and sacrifice gave them the life they know today. And they say their connection to their ancestral home of Antigua is powerful and fulfilling. 

"You feel like, wow, I know, you know, where some of my ancestors are from, you know, and that maybe I walked in the same beach that they did or I've eaten the same food," Hazel said. 

"There's something about walking into a place and everyone looks like you. Everyone's welcoming you. It's just completely different. It's like I have another home," Rhodes said. 

"If you've had a chance to ask him some questions, what would they be?" DuBois asked. 

"Was your heart filled when you came here? Was it what you imagined it to be?" Elam said.

The family says they plan to dig deeper to learn even more.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.