Occupying Ellis Island: Protests In the Years Between Immigration Station and National Park

By Carmen Nigro, Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
July 13, 2015
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Ellis Island, New York. Image ID: 836571

Ellis Island is powerfully symbolic in American culture. For legions of Americans, it is the beginning of their American identity. For two groups that don’t tie their ancestry to Ellis Island, Native Americans and African Americans, it became a powerful place to stage a protest in the 1970s because of the island’s symbolic identity.

Ellis Island closed its doors as an immigration processing station and detention center in November, 1954 and was declared excess federal property. For many years it stood in the harbor, barely tended, falling into decay. In May 1965, President Johnson signed a proclamation making Ellis Island a part of the National Park Service by adding it to the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Plans were made for the site, off and on, mostly rejected or put aside for another time. During this time, protesters eyed Ellis Island as a place to make a statement.

Native American Occupation Attempt

On March 16, 1970 American Indians attempted an occupation of Ellis Island. Thirty-eight American Indians from 14 tribes (Johnson) gathered while eight launched in boat from Jersey City docks at 5:30 am, and the others waited to join.

Radio news announced the landing although it had not occurred—a leaky gas line caused motor failure and kept the boat from its intended target. The National Park Service, custodians of the island, were alerted from the radio broadcasts and notified the Coast Guard, who placed two patrol boats near Ellis Island and used a World War I law from the 1917 Espionage Act to to create a “zone of security” around the island.

New York Times, March 17, 1970

The Alcatraz occupation was the inspiration for the Ellis Island attempt, which was part of a several American Indian takeover attempts and demonstrations at the time in the United States such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover, the Trail of Broken Treaties, Occupation of Wounded Knee, approximately seventy-four other short term occupations in locations such as Davis, CA, Fort Lawton and Fort Lewis, WA, Twin Cities Naval Air Station, MN, and protest camps at Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Monument (Johnson / Fischer).

“The targets of Indian protest were invariably government installations or historical sites of deep, double edged meaning. Indians in New York attempted to liberate Ellis Island. Mount Rushmore… was briefly occupied by Lakota and Chippewa militants. On Thanksgiving, a group of Indians led a protest at Plymouth Rock.” (Smith).  

The motivation of the demonstrators was to duplicate the activist movement on the East Coast that had more successfully begun on the West Coast. John White Fox, a Shoshone from Wyoming, helped coordinate the occupation and announced later at a press conference “There is no place for Indians to assemble and carry on tribal life here in this white man’s city” (New York Times, Mar 17 1970). The demands at the press conference included an Native American educational and cultural center on the island and reversal of land, air, and water pollution in North America. The goals of the movement, sometimes called “Red Power” movement, were for self-determination and concerns for urban populations that lived away from tribal centers and reservation governments (Boston Globe, Apr 29, 1970). The Guardian reported “Indian leaders have been springing up across the country and challenging the Federal Government to redeem their historic ill-treatment which, indeed, has been almost uniformly atrocious” (Mar 18, 1970). No one was arrested for the Ellis Island attempt since none of the protesters landed on the island (Smith & Warrior).

At the time Ellis Island only had a watchman on duty for a few hours per day. The National Park Service already had plans for the immigration museum.

The Encyclopedia of Ellis Island lists the Delaware Indians, more correctly the Lenni Lenape, as the original inhabitants in the area around Ellis Island in the time that Dutch and Swedish colonists came to this area. Ellis and Liberty Islands were respectively known to the Lenni Lanape as Kioshk (Gull Island) and Minnesais. The Lenni Lenape used to the two islands  and the surrounding estuaries for gathering oysters, clams, mussels, striped bass, sturgeon, flounder, and bluefish. In 1985 and 1986 National Park Service officials found human remains on Ellis Island which anthropologists concluded were from prehistoric Americans, most likely Delaware Indians. A purification ceremony took place with modern Delaware representatives, followed by reburial in 2003.  

African-American Occupation

In 1970, Thomas W. Matthew, head of National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization (NEGRO) asked President Nixon for use of Ellis Island to rehabilitate the decaying structures on the island and create self-sustaining black communities there as well as rehabilitation facilities for recovering addicts (Novotny). Matthew’s group had been featured in nationwide magazines and newspapers for their work in various venture capital operations, and hoped to eventually turn the facilities into profit making businesses as a movement for Black Capitalism. The Los Angeles Times described the occupation: “The invasion recalled tactics used by civil rights organizations around the country for the past several years. But NEGRO is quite distinct from the Urban League, the NAACP and CORE in that it is a business rather than a nonprofit social organization” (Nov 21, 1971).

Dr. Thomas W. Matthew, center. New York Times, Jan 9, 1970

No formal agreement was given from the White House, so Matthew and about 60 others quietly moved onto Ellis Island and began occupying it. Because the Coast Guard did not intervene as in the Native American occupation attempt, it seemed that Nixon had given “tacit approval” of Matthew’s plan (Cannato). Matthew’s group began clearing brush and some repairs to the buildings, and eventually the press noticed they were occupying the island. Most of the occupiers left, minus a small band that stayed on after the National Park Service agreed to Matthew’s proposal to rehabilitate the island. Few of that group stayed on past the winter, leaving only three residents by fall of 1971.

The organization was involved in several other businesses, including a chemical company, a textile firm, garment manufacturer, a bus company and a hospital. However by 1973, the New York Times reported on several of Matthew’s business failures and legal troubles, calling him a “man under fire” and reporting on his arrests (Apr 24, 1973). In regards to the Ellis Island occupation, the Times reported in 1974 “Dr. Thomas Matthew, who wanted to turn the Great Hall into a monument for immigrants. He has since been convicted of fraud in connection with Medicaid money. ‘He had a five-year use permit, but he didn’t do anything,’ said a spokesman for the National Park Service” (May 26, 1974). Oral histories from Matthew in 1970 are available to researchers at the Schomburg Center.

The National Park Service began their fundraising to restore Ellis Island in 1981. They similarly moved to restore the Statue of Liberty before its Centennial in 1986, and Ellis Island’s restoration would follow Liberty’s. In the late 1980s the Registry Room of the Main Building was restored to its appearance between the years 1918-1924. Renovated Ellis Island was reopened on September 9, 1990 as a museum and national monument. The Main Building received Landmark status in 1993.