March 20, 2017

By Arthur Henry Gunther III

One of the benefits of social media (and there are significant downsides) is that much information is presented, all of it requiring prudent review. But so deep are the vaults that many looksees are self-educating, even the “fake news.”
Included in the social media explosion is Pinterest, an image-sharing site that links you to information about photos or paintings or drawings. In turn, that brings you to other images and more info. You can go down many streets and then turn to alleys and to more paths. It can be fascinating and enlightening.
It can also be a history lesson, and in that, an eraser for prejudice like the sort that is being re-enabled in the “Whom do you hate today?” rhetoric from some D.C. officials who need their own educating.
Scanning through Pinterest, I came across many photographs of immigrants at Castle Garden in New York City, but also paintings done on site in this pre-Ellis Island
arrival center. One piece, a 1884 painting by Charles Frederic Ulrich, stood out.
“In the Land of Promise” is remarkable. Eight million people passed through Castle Garden between 1855 and 1890, including my Irish and Prussian forebears, and Ulrich’s art clearly demonstrates the exhaustion of a long and perilous sea journey but also the hope upon arrival. There is no greater evidence of that than a mother nursing her baby. What opportunity she passes to the child, in the sustenance of her milk and in the determination that the infant succeed in this new land.
There are various faces from different lands in this nearly 131-year-old painting, probably not a terrorist among them though surely some ne’r-do-wells, just like in the general U.S population. There are also sick people, as diseases were common in the crowded, noisy conditions of Castle Garden, as in New York City itself.
This painting is America itself. How many such people built the society we have today? How many died in America’s wars? How many invented things and saved lives? How many married our ancestors? How many are woven into our national fabric? How many are related to officials today who have turned their backs on their heritage?
John Lyons, my English grandfather, a merchant seaman from England’s north,
saw promise here and so, in difficult times in his native land, took refuge, contributed to a degree and caused no trouble. He was also illegal to his passing, which was not right. But he was no terrorist, no criminal of any sort, just slow on the paperwork.
I shudder to think what his fate would be today. Or my own. Or that of any of the people in Charles Ulrich’s magnificent “American” painting.
We are better people than this.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@hotmail.com