Attachments Exhibit at the National Archives

This is an exhibit of extraordinary stories
and compelling photographs. This exhibit tells those stories through the original documents
in the National Archives. I was doing research in immigration-related records for another
exhibit. Sometimes those files had photographs, attached literally to documents in the file.
And I have to admit I got kind of fascinated with who these people were. Most of the stories
in this exhibit originated at Angel Island, so it seemed like a fitting scene to open
with. The other element in the entrance here is this gate. It frames the entrance to the
exhibit. But it’s also a metaphor, actually it has lots of metaphors. My grandmother was
named Wong Lan Fong, that was her Chinese name. In America she was known as Mary Lee.
US immigration laws explicitly barred Chinese immigrant laborers from entering the country
and you could only apply for admission if you were one of these elite classes: merchants,
or students, or teachers. She was coming over as the wife of a merchant, one of those classes.
Some 70 years later their granddaughter, Erika Lee, was doing research in the National Archives
at San Bruno, California. She asked to see the file of her grandmother. The photograph
of her grandparents at their wedding literally fell out of the folder. All of these photos
are taken at a time when people are at a crossroads in their lives. And that makes them extra
interesting. They said, “Where do you want to go?” And I didn’t know any better.
I say, “I’ll go to Cleveland.” Michael Pupa is the one person in the Attachments
exhibit who is still living. He was a four-year-old boy living in Poland with his parents in 1942.
The Nazis came to the town where he was living and they murdered his mother and his baby
sister. He and his father and an uncle and a cousin fled into the forest in Poland where
they lived for the next two years until the end of the war. I look at it as I just represent
the generation of immigrants, as we all are really. I hope when people come into the exhibit
that they’ll look into the eyes of these people like I did when I was first looking
at the files. And I hope that they will get some sense that issues around who can come
into the country, how long somebody could stay, who can be an American have a long and
contested history. I was not prepared for, you know, pulling up in front of Constitution
Avenue in front of the Archives and right there seeing my grandmother’s picture. It
was rewarding and also emotional. I looked at hundreds and hundreds of files to create
this exhibit. There are still thousands and thousands of files in the National Archives.
Many of them may be the story of your family.

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