It may surprise no one to see names like “The Russo Family” from Sicily, Italy, or Anton Ivanovich Malygin from St. Petersburg, Russia, inscribed on Ellis Island’s American Immigrant Wall of Honor — a manifestation of common migration patterns to the United States from Europe more than a century ago.
But on a nearby panel, reflecting the Upper New York Bay and the shapes of visitors in its stainless steel, are the names “Topiltzin and Angela Martínez Family” from Honduras; “Teresa and Rosa E. López” from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala; and “Jaime F. Hernández” from El Salvador — immigrants who did not disembark on Ellis Island, but are memorialized for posterity nonetheless.
“Everybody wants to be honored,” said Stephen Briganti, president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. “They want to be remembered. They want their moment of arrival in America to be something that is memorialized. And in a small way, that’s what we can do here.”
Outside the Great Hall at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, 775,000 names are inscribed on 770 panels, formed in a semicircle wall facing New York’s Lower Manhattan skyline.
It’s not the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation that decides who is engraved, but immigrants and descendants of immigrants, old and new.
At its onset, a price tag of $100 earned you an individual slot.
“We could get million-dollar gifts from corporations, but this was an island of people. And generally, it was an island where poor people came. So, we wanted to make it possible for them or their descendants to honor them,” Briganti said.
Message to recent arrivals
What began in 1987 as a fundraising tool to restore and maintain Ellis Island, including the Wall of Honor, became a sensation across coastal cities and industrial hubs where the descendants of Ellis Island-era immigrants had largely settled.
As immigration patterns changed, so did the surnames on the wall itself. In the years since its creation, nearly every nationality is represented, including American Indian settlers and “those who endured forced migration from slavery,” according to the foundation’s website.