6. How do you teach students to analyze these documents?
I have used these documents in several courses. One, a course on Caribbean history, so when we get to the theme of migration and particularly migration to the United States. Ive also used the documents in African diaspora. Caribbean migration is a central component of the African diaspora class. I allow students, usually in teams, to work through the documents. I try to help them navigate the documents giving them a set of questions in terms of what information does the document provide. Then I ask students to determine, based on the lectures that weve already had in class, based on the readings, what additional information does this document provide? How does it parallel with what you already know about West Indian immigrants? What new information does it provide? What questions do you now have about the West Indian experience? What information can the documents provide, and what information can the documents not provide? Students have read a significant amount about migration in the Caribbean, about the experience of West Indians in Panama. Frequently, weve already talked about Harlem as this Mecca within the African diaspora. They are able to begin to ask some questions and try to gather the indirect information that the documents provide.
I ask the students to determine what type of document Ive provided, where the ship is sailing from, where its sailing to. As they look at the document to determine that theyre sailing to New York, I ask them why are they sailing to New York? Why arent they sailing to Baltimore? Why isnt this ship going to Richmond, Virginia? We usually have a certain discussion about the role of New York, its significance within Caribbean history, Caribbean migration within the African diaspora. Once weve determined where the ship is coming from and where the ship is going, students then usually begin to look at the names and the basic information in terms of sex and gender. For example, Virginia Carrington, who is on a ship leaving Trinidad in 1918 on the 20th of August. Virginia Carrington was 45 years old, a widow. When students move over to who paid her passage, in the case of Virginia Carrington, she paid the passage for herself. However, if students look at another individual, for example, Ada Charles whos a 23-year-old woman who was single, we find that Adas passage was paid for by her sister. And, in fact, she was going to meet her sister in New York.
Then I ask students what does that mean, that her sister paid for her passage? How might her sister have paid for her passage? And so we begin to talk about the role of remittances. Is it likely that her sister sent her money? How expensive was the passage? How would an individual who was just a domestic or laundress in Trinidad [have] been able to afford the passage? And the role, then, of family members and community in terms of saving money, sometimes selling a plot of land. Sometimes its Panama moneymoney earned from a father or an uncle working on the Panama Canalthats all cobbled together to allow one family member to go to New York. And then what might she have done once in New York? In the case of this young lady, shes 23 years old, and shes a seamstress. Was she likely to go out and find a job as a seamstress? How might she have found a job as a seamstress? Would her sister have played a role in that process? We talk about the role, then, that family members and the community played in helping someone locate a position. If they worked in a garment factory, for example, they might say, Theres a position available. Or if they were a domestic servant, they may say, I know a woman whos looking for a domestic.
We also talk about the fact that, sometimes, family members sent money to sisters or siblings in the islands because they needed someone to be a caretaker of the children. The ability to have a younger sister come to New York to assist in taking care of the children for a short period of time played an important role in the well-being of the entire household. Students might not immediately pick up on the fact that the sister paid for the passage and that they were going to live with the sister. And then what might that mean on a larger scale. How might that have been significant to the experience of West Indian women in New York?
Generally, they are quite fascinated with the record. Their immediate reaction is to gather the surface information from the manifest records. I help guide them through to ask the bigger questions about the experiences of the immigrants, to try to piece together what the documents, what the manifest records say about West Indian women in Trinidad. And what it might say also about their lives in New York City.