Did My Black Ancestors Enter the US via Ellis Island?

Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor (Underwood & Underwood, 1904) 
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor (Underwood & Underwood, 1904)
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Dear Professor Gates:

My maternal grandparents immigrated from St. Kitts between 1899 and 1901. They are Albena Denham (Daveron), born on Oct. 17, 1872, and Alexander Taylor, born on March 7, 1879. Both were born in St. Kitts.


I wonder how they entered the United States. They may have traveled on the S.S. Parima or S.S. Korona; however, there is no documentation of entry at Ellis Island or through any other ports. I know that my grandmother was traveling with a minor child named Daphne or Dorothy who was born on Feb. 11, 1896.

There is a Manhattan [New York City] marriage record for my grandparents dated Sept. 17, 1902. They also were located on [the] New York state census of 1905 and the U.S. census beginning in 1910.

I visited St. Kitts in 2014 and was able to locate a number of birth records. Albena’s parents were Margaret Denham (born 1859) and George R. Denham (born 1847). Both were born in St. Kitts and immigrated to the U.S. Alexander’s parents were William Taylor and Henrietta Pickering, also born in St. Kitts.

Can you tell me where my grandparents entered the U.S. or if there are other records relating to immigration or ports of entry that I should check? —Suzanne Clark

It’s certainly a reasonable assumption on your part that your maternal grandparents from St. Kitts—which, along with Nevis, belongs to a dual-island nation that is among the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean Sea—would have immigrated to the United States through the port of Ellis Island in New York City. As mentioned in a previous column, the website In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, presented by the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, states that “a relatively small influx of black migrants from the Caribbean ‘increased dramatically during the first three decades of the twentieth century, peaking in 1924 at 12,250 per year and falling off during the Depression. … Over 140,000 black immigrants passed through United States ports between 1899 and 1937, despite the restrictive immigration laws enacted in 1917, 1921, and 1924.’” The site furthermore describes “tens of thousands” of those migrants entering through Ellis Island.

Were your kin among them? In addition to satisfying your curiosity about how they arrived, finding passenger records that confirm this could reveal much more about their early lives. By 1903, not long after your maternal grandparents were to have immigrated from St. Kitts, passenger lists not only asked for basic information such as an individual’s name, age and sex, but also inquired about passengers’ marital status, criminal history and final destination within the U.S., according to Michael Tepper’s American Passenger Arrival Records: A Guide to the Records of Immigrants Arriving at American Ports by Sail and Steam.


Our own attempts to locate Albena Denham and Alexander Taylor in New York passenger records were, like yours, unsuccessful. However, it still is possible that Albena and Alexander entered the U.S. through the port of New York, given that the two married in Manhattan in 1902 and were residing in New York state at the enumeration of the 1905 New York state census and the 1910 U.S. federal census. (Additionally, two years before you say they arrived in the U.S., a fire on Ellis Island destroyed immigration records dating to 1855. Consider the possibility that they immigrated earlier than you thought and the records were destroyed.)

Moreover, we found a record for a George Denham (the name you gave for Albena’s father) entering the U.S. through the port of New York four years after Albena’s and Alexander’s marriage. A passenger list for the ship Parima (one of the ships you named), which entered New York harbor in 1906, includes George Denham of St. Kitts, born about 1848, perhaps following in the footsteps of his daughter and son-in-law.


In order to further ascertain whether Alexander and Albena, too, entered the U.S. through New York, we consulted U.S. census records for evidence of their naturalization. As Val D. Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy explains, individuals interested in obtaining citizenship in the United States after 1906 had to petition for naturalization through the Immigration and Naturalization Service (prior to 1906, the naturalization process was handled exclusively by the court system). The declarations of intent and petitions involved in the process typically contain a host of genealogical information, including the petitioner’s name, date of birth, place of birth, marital status and port of entry. Though you believe they immigrated several years prior, we thought it likely that such a petition would have been made on or after 1906.

The 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 federal censuses noted whether an individual had naturalized and obtained American citizenship, so we checked them. We knew this information would allow us to more easily locate and identify any existing naturalization records for Alexander and Albena.


We were first able to locate the couple residing in New York City on West 144th Street in Manhattan at the enumeration of the 1920 U.S. census. According to that record, Alexander and Albena had not yet naturalized, and were listed as aliens (i.e., noncitizens). By the enumeration of the 1930 census, Alexander and Albena had moved to East 167th Street in the Bronx and were still listed as aliens.

NEHGS genealogist Rhonda R. McClure was next able to locate Alexander and Albena in a 1933 New York City directory residing at East 166th Street—one block over from East 167th Street (via U.S. Cities Directories, 1822-1995, available at Ancestry.com; subscription required). We were unable to locate Alexander and Albena residing in New York at the taking of the 1940 federal census. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Albena had the chance to petition for naturalization or receive naturalization papers due to her death in New York in 1934. (Note that the index record contains valuable information, such as her mother’s surname of Tudor, and her burial place of St. Michael’s Cemetery.)


With the help of McClure, we were next able to locate an index record of a petition for naturalization for an Alexander Taylor (born March 17, 1874), who made his petition in New York in 1954 (New York, Index to Petitions for Naturalization filed in New York City, 1792-1989, via Ancestry.com). Alexander’s address is listed in the record as 850 E. 167th St. in New York—the same street where Alexander and Albena were enumerated in the 1930 census. 

Given that Alexander and Albena were living in the vicinity of East 167th Street in the early 1930s, it seems likely that the Alexander listed in the record is the same individual as your ancestor. To confirm this, we recommend that you order a copy of the original petition. The original petition, as described above, should also make note of Alexander’s port of entry. A copy of the petition can be requested from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration by providing the archive with the name of the court where Alexander submitted his petition and the petition number (both pieces of information being listed on the index record cited above). This request, along with a check made out to the National Archives Trust Fund in the amount of $10, can be sent by mail to the following address:

National Archives at New York City
1 Bowling Green, Third Floor
New York, NY 10004

Naturalization records can also be ordered online from NARA using this link

To further confirm if the Alexander Taylor listed in the 1954 petition record is the same individual as your ancestor, we also recommend searching for available New York City street and telephone directories for the years spanning 1930-1950. It may be possible to track Alexander’s movements from East 166th Street (where he was residing with his wife, Albena, in 1933) to 850 E. 167th St. (the address listed on his 1954 petition for naturalization).  Some of these telephone and city directories have been digitized, such as the 1939-1940 Bronx telephone directory, and can be accessed on the New York Public Library’s website.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.


This answer was provided in consultation with Daniel Sousa, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.