Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: WHYY
Date: May 23, 2006
Byline: Kenneth Finkel

Our Sites Will Tell Our Stories

As the capital of American history, the Philadelphia region has it all, or nearly all. In truth, we could to do a better job of serving up the entire experience of the nation's beginning. In addition to those sites and destinations that interpret the what (the founding documents, as interpreted at Independence Hall) and the how (the American Revolution, as interpreted at Valley Forge), we have neglected to tell the story of who We The People are.

If we had such a site, it would show how, and under what conditions, our ancestors arrived. It would invite us to imagine their first thoughts, first steps on American soil. This place would be nothing less than a national "site of conscience" (the term historians apply to such special places) equal to Ellis Island.

Unknown to historians, Delaware County has long been the quiet steward for an American site of arrival that is at least as important as New York's Ellis Island and a full century older. This place is called the Lazaretto, a 600-year old term for a quarantine and immigration station, and thanks to the recent work of officials in Tinicum Township and Harrisburg, the main building on this ten-acre site will not be sacrificed to the wrecking ball.

Last summer, Tinicum Township acquired this site, which was nearly unknown to historians. But then they crafted a solution that preservationists argue preserves the early Federal, cupola-topped, main hospital building at the expense of the site itself — and the potential visitor experience. On half of the site, Township officials plan to build a much-needed, 40,000-square foot, state-of-the art firehouse and evacuation/rental hall. The land that once served as the Lazaretto graveyard will be blacktopped for a 200-space parking lot.

Until recently, Tendaji Ganges (interviewed by WHYY's FM Art Reporter, Joel Rose) did not know about the Lazaretto, and wouldn't have much cared about its fate. But Mr. Ganges recently learned that his ancestors first set foot on American soil at the Lazaretto. And what Mr. Ganges experiences when he finally does visit the Lazaretto is being debated.

Like other members of his extended family, Mr. Ganges grew up hearing an old family story passed down by an elderly aunt. She spoke of the ancestors' arrival as slaves on a ship. But the story offered no particulars; no place; no date; no detail. In truth, Mr. Ganges — as well as hundreds of other Americans with that same last name — are descended from 134 enslaved Africans captured en route to the New World by a U.S. Navy vessel that brought them to the Lazaretto for processing. This little-known story is as dramatic as any in American history. If they visit today, descendants of these 134 individuals will find their family memory confirmed in context at the Lazaretto site, just as it has been for more than the last two centuries.

Eventually, the Lazaretto site will become a place where family memory and personal identity will be re-connected to this site on banks of the Delaware River. The question is what they will see when the get there.

For Ganges descendents, the Lazaretto is a unique site, a "site of conscience." And when the stories of other American families whose ancestors arrived from all over the world re-connect with this site, their descendents too will make pilgrimages to honor their families' stories of arrival. Tendaji Ganges will be in plenty of good company. Throughout the 19th century, Lazaretto officials processed as many as 200,000 new arrivals. "The yearning for a full understanding of the past", says Ganges, "is a powerful force that must be shared." Eventually, millions of Americans are likely to call the Lazaretto their own. Millions more will wish they could.

Will the Philadelphia region have its Ellis Island, a place that tells who "We The People" are and how we arrived? It largely depends on what kind of experience Tinicum officials create at the Lazaretto.