Trump’s Ellis Island Award for Being a “Developer” of German Descent

Two views of an award medal, front and back. The front says, "Donald Trump, Grandson of a German." The back says, "Oh yeah, and a real estate developer."
This is not the actual medal, but does present the truth about the reason for Trump’s award

In 1986, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor was established. The goal of the Ellis Island Honor Society, which sponsored the award, was to “herald the importance of immigration to America’s prosperity and celebrate the contributions immigrants and their progeny have made to our nation.”

Eighty people received the award that introductory year. Among them were Victor Borge, the comedic Danish-born pianist; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; the singers Andy Williams and John Denver; athletes Martina Navratilova and Joe DiMaggio; the activists Rosa Parks and Aloysius A. Mazewski; businessman Michel C. Bergerac; and 70 more.

One of the other 70 awards was for Donald Trump, who was honored for being a developer and the grandson of a German immigrant.

You can see the list of all 80 winners from this archived New York Times article from October 16, 1986. But more on that later. The image below includes the last 16 award recipients from the alphabetized list. Note what Trump was recognized for.

The names of 16 of the Ellis Island Award winners from the end of the alphabetical list: Paul Sanchez, Puerto Rican, labor leader. Domenick S. Scaglione, Italian, banker. Prof. Leo Schelbert, Swiss, educator. The Rev. Wallace R. Schulz, German, cleric. Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Swedish, scientist. Elsbeth M. Seewald, German, activist. Alexander Spanos, Greek, executive. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, German, publisher. Dr. Zoltan Szaz, Hungarian, lobbyist. James Tamer, Lebanese, activist. Donald J. Trump, German, developer Andrew Udvardy, Hungarian, activist. Barbara Walters, Rumanian, broadcaster. Andy Williams, Welsh, singer. Dr. Vera von Wiren-Garczynski, Russian, educator. Prof. Chien- Shung Wu, Chinese, physicist.

The Ellis Island Honors Society and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor

The Ellis Island awards have continued until the present day, after a hiatus between 1986 and 1990. The language describing their purpose has evolved and become loftier over the years. But luckily we have the Congressional Record from October 10, 1986, when the House of Representatives passed a resolution in support of the initial awards. This tells us exactly what the awards were about and what the criteria were for winning one in 1986.

If you want to see the whole thing, you can read the motion to support the Ellis Island Medals of Honor in the Congressional Record (House of Representatives, 1986). (Note, it is slow to download.)

But I’ve provided a screenshot of the pertinent part, and also printed the wording related to the purpose of the award as text next to it. We can determine the exact intent of the award at its inception. This is how the honorees were selected.

Screen shot of newspaper clipping, text as follows:
Whereas on October 28, 1986, in honor of the actual dedication of the Statue of Liberty, there will be an official rededication ceremony in New York: 

Whereas on that occasion the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, to be awarded by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation and the New York Statue of Liberty Centennial Commission in cooperation with the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations will be presented to a group of distinguished American citizens:

Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who exemplify the ideal of living a life dedicated to the American Way while preserving the values and tenets of a particular heritage group;

Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who have made special contributions to the reinforcement of the bonds between a heritage group and the people of its land of origin; and

Whereas the Medal will be awarded to individuals for distinguished service to humanity in any field, profession, or occupation...

Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), that the Congress of the United States endorses and supports the awarding of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, on October 28, 1986, as an appropriate symbol of the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration. The concurrent resolution was agreed to.  motion to reconsider was laid on the table.

Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who exemplify the ideal of living a life dedicated to the American Way while preserving the values and tenets of a particular heritage group;

Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who have made special contributions to the reinforcement of the bonds between a heritage group and the people of its land of origin; and

Whereas the Medal will be awarded to individuals for distinguished service to humanity in any field, profession, or occupation…

In short, these awards were for individuals with distinguished service to humanity in any field, profession, or occupation, and they needed to be immigrants or their progeny.

The honorees were recognized for both representing the American way of life and connecting the heritage of their culture of origin.

The New York Times archive from October 16, 1986, has the names of all 80 honorees and their professions.

Why Am I Writing About This?

Some of you have probably guessed my motivation here.

A photo was taken at the 1986 awards ceremony that shows Joe DiMaggio, Victor Borge, Anita Bryant (yes, that Anita Bryant), Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, and Donald Trump. I can’t post it here because the rights cost too much, but please take a look at it.

A conveniently cropped version of the photo is circulating as a meme. It usually includes only Ali, Parks, and Trump. The false text says essentially that Trump can’t be a racist because he received an Ellis Island award for “patriotism, tolerance, brotherhood, and diversity” along with Rosa Parks and Muhammed Ali. This is a lie. Another version says he received the award for “contributing to the conditions of inner-city black youths.” This is also fabricated. But in a very sad way, it might accidentally be true. It doesn’t specify that their conditions were improved, or what his “contributions” were, after all. In light of his stance and behavior with regard to the Central Park Five, it’s particularly pernicious.

But both of these representations and the other variants that group his award with Parks’ and Ali’s are completely made up. They are false. Trump received the award for being a real estate developer with a German granddaddy, with the understanding that he was bringing German culture to the U.S. while still living in the “American Way.” It’s a part of the public record.

That photo was well suited for deception because of the arrangement of the people. With the other three cropped out, it shows Trump standing with two Black Americans. It might even appear chummy if you don’t look too carefully. A closer look reveals that Trump shows little awareness of the people around him (except possibly to lean away from them). Instead, he preens at the camera. The cropped photo is also used to imply that Ali, Parks, and Trump were the only recipients of the award when they were actually 3 out of 80.

Nope, Trump was a well-known real estate developer whose grandfather was from Germany. That’s why he was one of the 80 honorees that year.

An Award for Being an Immigrant? For TRUMP?

Trump demonstrates nothing but hatred for immigrants unless they are white or otherwise benefit him personally. He loves to build walls and create travel bans on whatever countries he is currently scapegoating. He is happy to encourage harm and inhumane treatment of people who try to immigrate here, even children. And treat immigrants of color like dirt even when they become citizens.

There’s more irony. Trump doesn’t appear to qualify even for the award that he did get. He and his father hid their German roots for many years, with Fred Trump even telling people they were Swedish. This falsehood was included in Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, which was published the year after he won the award. The falsehood was even included in Fred Trump’s obituary in the New York Daily News in 1999. Lying about their ancestry doesn’t seem to be a great way to reinforcethe bonds between a heritage group and the people of its land of origin.”

It Takes More than a Medal. Trump Is Demonstrably Racist.

What if Trump really did win some anti-racism civil rights award with some famous Black activists? It still wouldn’t matter! Receiving an award doesn’t somehow protect you from being a racist. Racism is judged by behavior, including verbal behavior.

We get evidence of Trump’s active, central-to-his-platform racism virtually every day. Remember the rapists from Mexico? His reference to “shithole” countries and desire for more immigrants from places like Norway? His predictable hostility to Black female reporters?

But we can look at the bigger picture, too. We can see that Confederate flags are common sights at his rallies, with no objections from him. We can read the research about the rise in hate crimes associated with his campaign and presidency:

President Trump’s election was associated with a statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes across the United States, even when controlling for alternative explanations. Counties that voted for President Trump by the widest margins in the presidential election experienced the largest increases in reported hate crimes.

(Edwards & Rushin, 2018)

Even if the study missed something and this trend is not related to his behavior, a normal president, a president with American values, would consider such an increase an emergency. He or she would take action. But not Trump. To him, black lives do not matter. He supports systemic racism and white supremacy.

In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security added white supremacy to its list of domestic terrorism threats. Has Trump ever spoken out against white supremacy terrorist groups in a convincing way? No, he only dog whistles to his base that there are some “fine people” among them and retweets white supremacists.

Trump’s behavior tells us he is a racist, that it is central to his platform and approach. Trying to “prove” that Trump is not a racist with a cropped photo and a lying caption is puerile and ridiculous.

But yet. We respond to those damn pictures and simplistic slogans. That’s the problem with memes. Even when clumsily made, they can say so much wrong stuff in such a small package that it takes a whole blog to unpack them.

Anyone can make a meme. They can crop a picture, cherry-pick information, or lie completely. We seem to be wired to believe things presented in that format. I check the information on every meme that catches my attention, whether I am prone to agree or disagree with it. And either way—I don’t share them unless they are purely for humor. The simplistic thinking they encourage is dangerous.

Sharing the Truth

I’m careful about arguing against stuff in such a way that it propagates bad info. Research and experience indicate that it is very hard to change someone’s mind, and that writing about myths can strengthen them. It’s a tricky business. So you notice that I don’t include the meme here, nor did I lead with the lies. I led with the most accurate information I could determine. 

But you are going to run into that ridiculous meme. If no one speaks up, it slips into our collective culture. Those of us who have paid attention to Trump’s behavior at all will probably have that fishy feeling: something’s not right here. And we’ll decide whether it’s worth looking into.

Some of us may want to address the meta issue. Medals can be connected to behavior, but they are no substitute for observable behavior. But some of us might want to point out that the meme is yet another lie. By pushing back on falsehoods, we break up the appearance of unanimity on a topic. I offer this post with that in mind, for those who are interested in truth and who want to push back on lies and deception. And you never know. When you do make a statement based on evidence, some people lurking may be listening.

So here’s a review. 

  1. Trump won an award in 1986, but it was for being a real estate developer with an immigrant grandfather. 
  2. He didn’t win his award for the same reasons that Muhammed Ali and Rosa Parks won theirs.
  3. Eighty people won awards that year. 
  4. Awards—for anything—do not speak as loud as behavior.

I thank Kevin Kruse for writing about this issue on Twitter. Be sure and check out his thread. I wouldn’t have known to look into this without his series of tweets. There are other “debunking” articles about the photo and Trump’s Ellis Island Medal of Honor. But Snopes only verifies that the photo (uncropped) is real. Politifact addresses the context better. But I wanted to dig a little deeper and present some resources from the time. It’s easy to show that the meme is a deliberate lie.

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson


Edwards, G. S., & Rushin, S. (2018). The effect of President Trump’s election on hate crimes. Available at SSRN 3102652.

25 thoughts on “Trump’s Ellis Island Award for Being a “Developer” of German Descent

  1. Eileen, thank you so much for posting this. I have not yet seen the meme. I’m glad to have the facts. I appreciate your forthrightness and speaking out.

  2. Brava! So similar to training, what are you really seeing as opposed to your story about what you are seeing. Can you take this or any situation apart and look at each small detail, because they matter. Thank you!

  3. queridas amigas y amigos, se podría apreciar el artículo de Eileen, pero en mi modesta opinión, es muy fácil criticar a los gobernantes. Prefiero seguir disfrutando de los perritos, de sus singularidades y dejar la política para otro momento y lugar. Por el mismo motivo que alguien podría ser admirado, podría ser odiado. Afortunadamente la vida es polifacética.
    Con respeto y admiración.
    Felipe Caicedo

  4. I’m done. I loved your stuff. But I don’t need the politics, either side. Sorry.

  5. You know, I think you deserve a medal for your passion to investigate and disseminate information.

  6. Oops. I think I called you Ellen. I do know your name is Eileen. My apologies for a temporary senior moment.

  7. I haven’t seen the meme, but when I do, I’m glad to know the truth about where it’s coming from. Thanks for your thorough research.

  8. Hi all,

    Thank you for the supportive comments. Also to the people who needed to announce their departure, fair enough.

    I’m not printing the comments that expressed direct support for a white supremacist leader or conspiracy theories.

    I know this is not the content that people expect on my blog. But it is also about behavior.

    I used the exact same methods with this piece on the award that I use in all my writing. I checked old records, used multiple sources. I used observable phenomena, generally things that any of us can verify on video.

    Yes, talking about dog stuff is more fun. It is for me, too. But it’s a privilege some of us have to be able to “step away” from the politics going on in the United States and the world. Some people don’t have that privilege. They can’t step out of their very lives. So I am choosing not to turn away or compartmentalize.

    This is a dog blog, but I have written about human behavior before. I shall continue to write about both.

    Thanks to all readers!

  9. Excellent explanation and nice work not showing a photo that could inadvertently reinforce. Thanks so much!

  10. How is someone being a Lobbyist, another one a banker, and yet another a publisher differ from being a developer? Wow! Showing you bias much against Trump? Good way to lose a lot of your page supporters.

    1. They don’t. Those are all vocations or claims to fame, including being a developer. But you missed the point. Perhaps you haven’t seen the meme. The meme showing his photo with the medal doesn’t say he was a developer. The meme says he was got an award as a civil rights activist. Which is absolutely false.

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