When your humble writer was a volunteer at Ellis Island his favorite part of the museum was the graffiti written by immigrants waiting to be processed. In the tense, hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere of the immigration station people standing in line often sketched portraits of themselves, scribbled little vignettes of doggerel, or simply noted the time and day of their arrival. Of course, one cannot make out what the person was saying unless one reads Polish, Hungarian, Italian, or whatever language the scribbler happened to write in. Still, they are powerful testimonials that bear witness to the strength and perseverance of those who passed through the Golden Door. When the NPS renovated Ellis in the 1980s, Park officials wisely left some of these off-the-cuff testimonials, now behind plexiglass, for us to contemplate today.
A few years ago my brother and I were at the Museum of the Great War in Perrone where we saw similar works, written by poilus on wooden planks in trenches on the Western Front and now on permanent exhibit. (“Clemenceau the liar” read one in French, translated for me by my brother who has lived in Switzerland for nearly twenty years.)
When Andrew Johnson was serving as Union military governor of Tennessee during the Civil War his home was confiscated by rebel troops for the duration of the war. By the time he returned as former president in 1869, the home was back in family hands. Johnson’s daughter did her best to erase, or more precisely cover, all evidence of Confederate presence. She wallpapered over the graffiti left by Southern troops on walls throughout the house. The Park Service obtained the home in 1956 and soon discovered these remnants during renovations. Ironically, it is when building or rebuilding that we often rediscover the past. Words and drawings are spread liberally across the house. Rangers have even been able to trace the biographies of some of the soldiers who actually signed their names to the walls of Johnson’s home using the NPS’s Soldiers and Sailors System database.
Pretty cool, huh?