Did You Know Lady Liberty Was a Monument to Slavery Abolishment, Not Immigration? [Corrected]

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The newly opened Statue of Liberty Museum, which debuted May 16 in New York Harbor, brings to light a little-spoken-of aspect of the statue’s history: the statue was never meant to be about immigration, but meant to honor the liberation of slaves.

Wrote the Washington Post:

“One of the first meanings [of the statue] had to do with abolition, but it’s a meaning that didn’t stick,” Edward Berenson, a history professor at New York University and author of the book “The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story,” said in an interview with The Washington Post.

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As reported in the Washington Post, the idea that the Statue of Liberty is about immigration, doesn’t add up. Ellis Island, the gateway for many immigrants, opened in 1892, six years after Lady Liberty was gifted to the U.S. by France in 1886. Also, the Emma Lazarus poem, engraved on the base of the towering sculpture, which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ...” didn’t appear on the statue until 1903.

An expert on the U.S. Constitution and a prominent abolitionist, Édouard de Laboulaye came up with the idea for the tourist attraction, which drew 4.5 million visitors in 2018. He developed it in June 1865 after meeting with other French abolitionists, hoping to bolster the French belief in democracy by honoring America’s democracy, which had just abolished slavery.

“They talked about the idea of creating some kind of commemorative gift that would recognize the importance of the liberation of the slaves,” Berenson told the Post.

In an early model of the statue from 1870, the Statue of Liberty can be seen holding broken shackles. This clay model, referencing slavery’s end, can currently be viewed at the Museum of the City of New York. According to the Washington Post, with the final version, you can clearly see that there are broken chains under Lady Liberty’s feet, but they are not as readily apparent as in the older terra cotta model where she is holding the chains in her left hand.

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The statue would ultimately be revealed to the public as “Liberty Enlightening the World” on Oct. 28, 1886. And while, originally, the celebration was meant to mark the history of American slavery, the true nature of the event was obscured by quite a bit of pomp and circumstance (from fireworks to a military parade)—including the French sculptor who created the statue, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, pulling his own stunt of removing a French flag obscuring the statue’s face.

But even then, black critics were vocal about what they saw as the hypocrisy of a monument to liberty in the land of inopportunity.

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From the Washington Post:

In his book, Berenson quotes an 1886 editorial in the black newspaper the Cleveland Gazette: “Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family … The idea of the ‘liberty’ of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme.”

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And this is a problem that surrounds Lady Liberty to this very day, an America where “liberty” is still determined at times by the color of one’s skin.

Correction: 6/17/19, 5:25 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect the correct date of the museum’s opening and to correct phrasing around the Statue of Liberty’s lore. This story has also removed and rewritten unattributed text.

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