Around 50 people gathered to sip coffee and nibble off napkins at the Autry Center on Wednesday, as the institution awarded their Maverick Prize to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.
“The Maverick Prize relates to an entity or an individual that was particularly innovative and particularly exceptional in how they thought about history,” said David Cartwright, an Autry trustee. “[AIISF has] a long history of bringing the history of Asian immigration to light in a way that is… more than unique. I think it’s changed the way we think about history.”
The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation is a California-based nonprofit whose mission (according to its website) is to “promote a greater understanding of Pacific Coast immigration and its role in shaping America’s past, present and future.” The group's mission has expanded over the years from their original goal to preserve the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West.”
About 175,000 Asian immigrants entered America between 1910 and 1940 through the Angel Island immigration station in California’s San Francisco Bay. Many of the immigrants were detained for up to two years at the station.
AIISF has also begun an oral history project to record the stories of the island's detainees – including 83-year-old Myron Wong, who was present at the award ceremony.
“When the war started in China [in 1939], the Japanese came and bombed my village,” Wong told reporters gathered at the event. “When I was a kid, we saw the plane coming overhead and my mom sent a letter to my dad [in the United States], saying ‘You better get your son out of here.’”
That’s how Wong and his brother found themselves at the Angel Island Immigration Station, where their interviews for entry were both delayed by a month. Because Wong's father was American-born and of Chinese descent, immigration law at the time stipulated that he was not allowed to bring his Chinese-born wife to the states. Myron never saw his mother again.
“I have no bad feeling toward this country,” Wong said. Despite the time he spent on Angel Island, “to me, life's short," he said. "I just do the best I can.”
AIISF will receive $10,000 and an invitation to present its work at the Autry as part the award. Wednesday's ceremony included a video presentation by AIISF of some of its currently chronicled oral histories, like that of Tyrus Wong:
Clarification: In an earlier version of this story, we referred to the center as the Gene Autry Center. The center is, in fact, called the Autry Center.