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GUY RAZ, HOST:

At the National Archives here in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit charts the stories of 19th and early 20th century immigrants to America. Curators of the exhibit went deep into the Archives to find old case files of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and the stories those files tell. NPR's Tasnim Shamma visited the archives and brings us one of those stories.

TASNIM SHAMMA, BYLINE: The exhibit is called "Attachments," and it tells the story behind the original documents and photographs often attached to immigrant case files. Erika Lee is a history professor at the University of Minnesota. She found a very special attachment while visiting the Archives. The first file she asked to see was her family's. When she opened it, her grandmother's wedding photograph fell out.

So as a historian, this was like a breakthrough discovery of a lifetime. And then, just as a granddaughter, it was extremely emotional.

The black and white photo from 1926 shows Lee's grandparents looking straight into the camera. In the photo, Lee's grandfather, Yee Shew Ning, sports a tuxedo. Her grandmother, Wong Lan Fong, wears a collared silk dress and a wedding veil. It looks like a typical wedding photograph, until you look a little closer.

BRUCE BUSTARD: The thing that is really different is that if you look at the detail of the photograph, you can see the number that the immigration authorities wrote on the photograph that is the number of her immigration file.

SHAMMA: That's Bruce Bustard. He's senior curator of the exhibit. He points at the five-digit number on a corner of the photo. It's the immigration case file number. It's also the number of the ship Lee's grandparents arrived on 85 years ago. At the time, Chinese immigrant women were routinely held in detention for long periods by immigration officials. They were often suspected of being prostitutes. Lee's grandfather knew his wife would have to overcome these stereotypes before immigration officials would authorize his wife's entry, so he saved his wages from his laundry business for an entire year to purchase a first class ticket for his wife, and he documented everything.

ERIKA LEE: He really, you know, was put through the wringer.

SHAMMA: Lee found the photograph and her family's paperwork among tens of thousands of immigration case files at the National Archives. Archivist of the United States David Ferrerio says he's excited about the new discoveries that this exhibit will inspire.

DAVID FERRERIO: One of the things that I'm proudest of is the fact that this is an opportunity to educate people about the ability to do their own family research using the records.

SHAMMA: You don't have to be a professional historian like Erika Lee to learn more about your own family history. If you're at least 14 years old, you can come in to the National Archives, put on some white cotton gloves and access millions of photos and files, from census records to ship passenger lists. For NPR News, I'm Tasnim Shamma.

RAZ: And to see the wedding photograph of Erika Lee's grandparents and others in the exhibit, check out our website, npr.org.

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