The year was 1970, and demolition plans were well underway for the building. Park Ranger Alexander Weiss was astonished to find entire walls covered in calligraphy. Wishing to understand the “graffiti,” Weiss told his professor at San Francisco State College about his findings. An immigrant brought to America as a four year-old Jewish refugee escaping the Holocaust, Weiss sensed these carvings were a significant part of the island’s untold immigration story.
Professor George Araki, whose mother immigrated through Angel Island, recognized the historical significance of poems carved by Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island, quickly got Mak Takahashi to photograph the walls, and the movement to save the immigration station site was born. Spearheaded by Paul Chow, the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee was formed to advocate preservation of the immigration station.
The Committee’s extensive community outreach and exhaustive lobbying at local and state levels led to a state appropriation of $250,000 in July, 1976 to restore and preserve the barracks as a state monument. The first floor of the barracks was opened in 1983, and visitors could finally return to the cramped living quarters of the detainees and read poignant poems on the walls. Members of the Committee then founded the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) to continue its preservation and education efforts.
Led by AIISF, the immigration station was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997. By 2005, AIISF’s lobbying efforts, framing the Angel Island story as a tragic history of exclusion leading to an American tale of triumph and diversity, succeeded in raising enough money to restore the site and barracks building, with funding coming from Federal appropriations, California State Bonds, Save America’s Treasures, and The California Cultural and Historical Endowment.
On a cold and stormy morning in February, 2009, more than 1,500 people, including former detainees and descendants of detainees, gathered at the Angel Island Immigration Station to celebrate the restoration and reopening of the site and barracks building. At the celebration, Kathy Ko Chin, then AIISF board president, said:
“The Immigration Station is a site of conscience, about immigration past, present, and future. It is a place for reflection on the very personal immigration experience, but also on international relations and social justice. And it is a place of reconciliation for the wrongs that were done and the human rights that we must uphold.”
Today the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation stands as the voice for the immigration experience through the other door. With the restoration of the Public Health Service Hospital and development of the Pacific Coast Immigration Center, AIISF achieves a major milestone in its mission to capture, create awareness for, and highlight the importance of our immigrant legacy. By targeting youth and embracing cutting edge technology in our robust education programs, we bring an understanding of our immigrant past to the next generation. We ask for your help to close the door on a history of exclusion and open a new door into a future of inclusion.