Historian Finds Solace in Family Photograph

When University of Minnesota professor Erika Lee was researching the Exclusion Era for a graduate school assignment during the mid 1990s, her search for primary material was largely unfruitful at first. However, according to National Public Radio, after calling the National Archives in San Bruno, California, to inquire about gaining access to immigrant case files, Lee was elated when she was informed that the archives had recently received about 70,000 individual immigrant case files, many of which would turn out to be pivotal to her graduate research.

She immediately requested access to them. As a descendant of Chinese immigrants, the first file Lee asked to see was her family’s files. What she found was something that she will cherish for the rest of her life. When she opened the file, her grandmother’s photograph fell out.

“As a historian, this was like a breakthrough discovery of a lifetime, and then, just as a granddaughter, it was extremely emotional,” Lee told the source.

Seeing this photograph of her grandmother has prompted many of Lee’s other projects that have focused on immigration. According to NPR, Lee was recently named as the director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Lee is also the author of award-winning books, “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America” and “At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.”

A new exhibit at the Washington, D.C. National Archives called, “Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates,” hopes to prompt the same type of fascination in exhibit visitors with the United States’ immigration history as Lee has found.

Tales of post-World War II era immigration to tales of detainment by the Chinese government are just some examples of what makes up the beautiful immigration exhibit. According to the National Archives’ website, the exhibition features the documentation of people migrating to the United States in search of a better life and become a green card holder.

“Chinese immigrants really looked to the United States. They called it Gum Saan, or Gold Mountain,” Lee said. “The United States was seen as the place where you could make your dreams come true.”