I spent about 30 hours last week, from Tuesday evening to Saturday afternoon searching the 1200+ page list of Katrina evacuees in Arkansas. I was looking for members of an organization of families of incarcerated youth in Louisiana.

In addition to this I work at the Ellis Island museum and I am very familiar with the passenger list, known as manifests which were the documents of record for immigrants arriving at the island from the day it opened in 1892 at least as far as 1924. The island was open until 1954 but I am less familiar with documents from 1925 on.

As I was searching through the Arkansas document it struck me that there were some similarities between it and the Ellis Island manifests, at least in terms of format.

I can tell you a few things about the comparative quality of the electronically compiled evacuee list as compared to the largely handwritten Ellis Island ship manifests.

There is no facility analogous to the database of Ellis Island passenger records for African American people. The slave burial round historic site in downtown Manhattan is basically a fenced in area with a tree. Given that the evacuation of the Gulf Coast is the probably the largest, fastest migration of Americans since the civil war, people may at some point in the future want to use the evacuee lists, of Arkansas for example to trace their lineage to New Orleans, which had a free Black community going back generations before the Civil War. For that purpose or even for its intended purpose of locating evacuees right now Arkansas’ document is woefully inadequate.

For example my great Grandfather Calogero Cannizaro is listed on a manifest from 1911. We can see on this document that his next of kin was in his home town, a village outside of Palermo. We can see where he was going; in fact there is a complete name address of the person in Brooklyn whose home he was going to. This level of detail is available on all the manifests after 1907 and is by leaps and bounds more complete than the Arkansas evacuee list. Most of the manifests as far back as 1892 are of a similar quality relative to the Arkansas evacuee list.

Often the Arkansas list will have no information at all listed next to a person’s name. Sometimes there are obvious spelling errors or the same name written with a few different spelling when it is pretty clear the listings refer to the same person. In other instances names, not all of which seem to be too common, are given one row on the document and instead of specific contact information the document states that there are numerous evacuees with that same name and to call a toll free number. I tried it, it was busy. Many, many of the entries are incomplete.

Granted, because the Arkansas document was generated by people using computers it has no handwriting issues also it was easy enough to alphabetize by last name. Unfortunately, since many have the first name and surname transposed this is not always helpful. Given the size of the document printing it out is impossible for anyone without serious financial means. Downloading the document without a high speed internet connection is similarly insurmountable. Viewing it and searching it on a home PC is extremely time consuming. My home PC is an iMac g3 with a 300 MHz processor and 128 Megs of ram and I ended up having to do my work with the document at my computer at work. Anyone with a slower computer or without a fair amount of computer knowledge would encounter even more obstacles.

Many people are familiar with the film Godfather II, some of which was filmed on Ellis Island. In the early flashback sequences we see Vito Andolini (Don Corleone) experience the murder of most of his family. He boards a ship as a child alone to an unfamiliar place and loses even his name along the way. This fiction of European immigration into the US is much closer to the facts of the middle passage than it is to the experience of any white ethnic’s great or great-great grandfather. The current Mafia chic popular among Black youth should surprise nobody.

It is a matter confirmed by historical documents that white privilege was extended to those immigrants at least from the time they were interviewed by the ship’s purser on the dock in Palermo, Bremen, Naples, La Havre etc. More attention was paid to the accuracy of the documentation of their migration, using fountain pens and ledger books, than to the exodus of mostly poor mostly Black folks from the New Orleans area today using computers