Donor traces his family's roots, supports museum research
After opening the new innovation floor of the west wing this summer, the museum is looking forward to the second floor, which will open in summer 2017 around the theme of “the nation we build together.” One of the floor’s future exhibitions, Many Voices, One Nation, will present the 500-year journey of how many distinct peoples and cultures met, mingled, and created the culture of the United States.
Lauren Collette interviewed Steve Alloy, who with his wife recently supported the exhibition. They discussed his family history, his personal interest in immigration and the telling of the immigration story, and his relationship with the museum.
What is your family’s immigration story?
All eight of my great-grandparents, and several of my great-great-grandparents, immigrated to the United States from Russia and Eastern Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Just about all of them ended up in Washington D.C., making me a fifth-generation Washingtonian. In researching my family history and my wife's family history, I discovered that every branch of both of our families came from nearly the same part of Russia (now Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania) at nearly the same point in history. I wondered why and began doing some research. I learned a lot about one of the greatest migrations of people in modern history, when one-third of Eastern Europe's Jewish population walked, rode, and sailed to America. I looked into why they were there in the first place, why they left, how they got here, and their impact in America. The details of this phenomenon were unknown to me, and I wanted to learn more.
Was your family history shared with you while growing up?
Not a single story was shared. I think it is pretty typical for that generation to not talk about the hardships they endured. They were Jewish Americans fleeing the Russian empire and came to the United States with many barriers—financial, linguistic, and more. So in terms of digging into my history, it was a massive research project to trace these individuals. I have been able to put together a history of over 2,000 relatives and learned where people came from, how they were connected, and so much more. For instance, I learned that my ancestors had a furniture store in 1906 on what is Pennsylvania Avenue today between the White House and Capitol. Being able to see the advertisements and the storefront, which is still there, is so fascinating to me.
How did you start your research?
When online tools became prevalent, like Ancestry.com, I started spending time with some of the search engines and websites. I am very research-oriented, and piecing together my family’s history became a real area of interest. I would find historical documents that would contain clues that led me to the next set of historical documents, and when the pieces came together, it created a larger narrative. Coincidentally, this is exactly what the museum is doing with its objects and collections to tell the story of immigration in Many Voices, One Nation.
Can you speak more to the importance of understanding immigration within a historical context and why it is important to tell the story in an exhibition like Many Voices, One Nation?
I think for the museum to want to tell the story of immigration is significant. In the United States, immigration is a critical part of our national history, and now today, it is a major topic of debate in our politics. Many of the topics being debated today were also fiercely debated in our past. We have a rich experience both of welcoming immigration and of more closed border policies, of shifting demographics, and of people assimilating more and assimilating less. Whether it is Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Mexican, African, or other groups of immigrants, the history of how people arrived, the influence on the cities they moved to, and the social and economic impacts can teach us a lot. The museum can provide context for what came before us, and that knowledge is helpful regardless of which side of the political argument you are on. I hope it helps visitors understand their history, but also makes them think about how we can best move forward as a nation.
Once you became more familiar with the museum, what did you learn that made you see it differently?
When I had thought of the museum in the past, I knew it was a place dedicated to telling the history of America. However, it wasn't until I met curator Bill Yeingst and John Gray, the museum's director, that I really connected how the museum uses historical artifacts and objects to convey the American story. I, like everyone else, had walked through the museum, reading the labels and looking at objects. But when Bill described his role as a curator, it was insightful to learn how curators not only have to pick which stories to tell, but figure out which objects can best tell that story. It honestly never occurred to me how the museum's staff uses physical representations of our history to tell the story, which is so rich and special when you compare it to reading a history book. The whole process is fascinating, as are their jobs. They tell our nation's narrative and need to figure out how objects can do that in an engaging, educational, and approachable manner to appeal to all audiences.
If you could select one object to represent your family's immigration story, what would it be and why?
A single travel bag, valise, or suitcase from about 1890. Basically, every one of my ancestors fled the Russian Empire with nothing more than a bag they could carry. Each arrived by ship and landed in America with no English language skills, almost no money, and nothing but each other and perhaps that bag with a change of clothes or two. It would represent the incredible faith in the American dream to leave everything behind and start over in a land of opportunity.
Steve's passion for American history and immigration inspired him to support the museum's future Many Voices, One Nation exhibition. To support the museum or learn more about the exhibition, visit us online or contact Lauren Collette, manager of annual giving, at (202) 633-3737 or ColletteL@si.edu.