Ellis Island Medal of Honor: Definition & Recipients

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

The Ellis Island Medal of Honor recognizes the contributions that Americans of all backgrounds make to strengthen the country and represent the diversity found in the immigrant experience of Ellis Island.

From Sea to Shining Sea

At some point in the course of American history, nearly all of our ancestors made the voyage from their homeland to our shores in search of a new life. Maybe yours sailed for weeks on a boat, full of hope, bringing only what they could carry with them. Perhaps they fled war or genocide, focused only on getting out of their origin country alive. Maybe some had friends or relatives already settled into American life while others set out into the unknown. Whatever the stories of your family, it is all of these stories that make the USA such a varied, interesting, and unique country.

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

Immigrants at Ellis Island
Immigrants at Ellis Island

As immigration to the United States increased during the 19th century, many Americans grew concerned that the individuals arriving by the thousands would be a burden on society. In 1890, the federal government took control of immigration and, in 1892, opened Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay to be a primary checkpoint for inspection. Here, health, skills, and viability as Americans were assessed before people were permitted to enter New York. Sometimes individuals or families were detained, quarantined, or deported if they were found to not meet the accepted standards. Still, between 1892 and 1954, millions of people from around the world went through Ellis Island to chase their American dreams.

Ellis Island Medal of Honor

In 1984, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) was founded to not only celebrate the melting pot of American people but to preserve Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, which represent the immigrant experience that characterizes America. In 1986, there was a Liberty Weekend gala to celebrate not only the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty's dedication, but also the completion of her restoration. At this celebration, President Ronald Reagan awarded the Medal of Liberty to a small group of high profile Americans; however, many felt that this did not represent the true diversity of the American population.

Later that same year, NECO responded to those sentiments and began awarding the Ellis Island Medal of Honor to individuals each year who characterized its mission, which NECO chairman, Nasser J. Kazeminy, has stated, ''is about investing in the power of caring, whereas people from all cultures and walks of life stand together arm in arm to make a real difference in our world through shared compassion and philanthropy - not just for now, but to also inspire future generations who will continue to preserve and build upon the legacy that each of our cultures has contributed.''

The Ellis Island Medal of Honor recognizes those who have made a significant impact on their communities through a life of service. It is also important to NECO that honorees celebrate their ancestry as well as American values. There are five criteria that identify the award's winners:

- Integrity

- Passion

- Gravitas

- Humanitarian

- Ethnic Heritage

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