Hands-On Immigration Activities in New York

With over 12 billion documents in the National Archives, our records have countless stories to tell.

Even with just three types of documents—a passenger arrival record, census record and a naturalization record—one can learn quite a bit about a person’s life.  And students have the opportunity to uncover these stories during a hands-on field trip at the National Archives at New York City.

Take Luther Powell, for instance.  A 1920 passenger arrival record, a 1930 census record, and naturalization records from 1929 and 1936 provide snapshots of four different times in his life.

Luther Powell Passenger Arrival Manifest
Passenger Arrival Manifest that lists Luther Powell (line 5) (From the Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service)

Luther Powell arrived in the United States from Jamaica in April 1920.  After six days aboard the Manchioneal, he arrived in Philadelphia as a 22 year-old clerk with $80 in his pocket.  He had left his father Aubrey Powell to make a new life for himself in New York City.  He probably chose New York because his uncle lived there at West 131st Street.

Luther Powell 1930 Census
1930 Census page that includes Luther Powell (line 13) (From the Records of the Bureau of the Census)

Though he only intended to stay in the US for four years, a census taker in 1930 found Luther at 196 Bradhurst Avenue in New York City.  Perhaps Ariel had something to do with him staying.  Luther Powell and Ariel were married just a year earlier in 1929.  Working as a shipping clerk and a dressmaker respectively, Luther and Ariel rented their place in Upper Manhattan for $70 a month.  They must have made enough to have some disposable income—they did own a radio.

Declaration of Intention for Luther Powell
Luther Powell’s Declaration of Intention (From the Records of District Courts of the United States)
Luther Powell Petition of Naturalization (front)
Luther Powell’s Petition of Naturalization (From the Records of District Courts of the United States)

Though he had declared his intent to become a US citizen in 1929, he wouldn’t become a citizen until taking his oath of allegiance on December 1, 1936.  By that time, Luther and Ariel had a 5 year-old daughter Marilyn and were living a couple miles south at 20-21 Morningside Avenue.

Luther Powell is just one of the people featured in the National Archives at New York City’s Hands-On Archives: Exploring America’s Diversity student field trip.  Every year, hundreds of students in grades 4 through 8 explore the lives of Luther Powell, Florence Campbell, John King, Miguel Minan, Motel Garber and other real life New Yorkers.

Armed with a magnifying lens and an archival box filled with their passenger arrival, census and naturalization record, the students look for clues about these people’s lives.  They end up discovering a lot about the similarities and differences between these different people and between the past and the present.   Students are always surprised by certain major differences—such as the length of the immigrant’s journey to the US (still over two weeks in some cases) and the cost to rent an apartment in 1930 New York City (as low as $23 in some places).

While the full story of each person’s life is still left incomplete after uncovering just these four documents, as a post-visit activity students could create a short informative writing about their person’s life.

Now that we can check into the life of Luther Powell in the 1940 Census, we do get a bit more of his family’s story.  In 1937, Luther had a son who would grow up to be a soldier, general, National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff and Security of State.  That son, of course, was Colin Powell.

President George W. Bush looks over a brief with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the Oval Office
Secretary of State Colin Powell with President George W. Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (From the Records of the White House Photo Office, George W. Bush Administration)

To find out more about this Hands-On Archives field trip opportunity at the National Archives at New York City, contact us at newyork.archives@nara.gov or 1-866-840-1752.

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