The Statue of Liberty has long stood as a beacon of hope to immigrants. Millions of immigrants from Europe got their first glimpse of America when they spied the grand lady upon sailing into New York harbor. The Statue of Liberty is widely recognized as a symbol of freedom for immigrants.
Rumors have circulated for years claiming that Lady Liberty created by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi originally had another meaning. Many believe that the statue was intended, at least in part, as a monument to freed black American slaves.
Indeed, a 21-inch high model of the statue made by Bartholdi in 1870 as a prototype shows what appears to be a black face. The face on the final Statue of Liberty erected it in 1886 is not that of a black woman, however. In fact, the face seen by millions in New York harbor is said to be that of Bartholdi's mother Charlotte.
The statue in New York harbor has several differences when compared to the 1870 model. The model, now in the Museum of the City of New York, not only has a black face but also a broken chain around its hand. The statue in the harbor has a more discreet broken shackle on its foot. Some believe the broken shackles symbolize the freedom of American slaves. However, the same broken shackles could be interpreted as freedom from totalitarian governments in other lands.
The National Park Service's official history of the Statue of Liberty says that it was proposed by French historian Edouard Laboulaye in 1865 to commemorate the friendship between France and the United States. Laboulaye was also a leader of the French abolitionist movement with a commitment to fighting slavery. One version of the persistent rumors claims that Laboulaye conceived the statue with both the slaves and Franco-American friendship in mind.
The statue was then created by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. According to National Park Service anthropologist Rebecca M. Joseph:
Auguste Bartholdi was largely apolitical and adapted his self-presentation to advance his career as an artist. His frequent references to race-related subjects during his 1871 visit to the United States reflect the influences of his French patrons and American contacts.
The poem at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty gives no hints of Black American freedom with its lines extracted from a sonnet by Emma Lazarus:
Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
However, those words had not yet been written when the statue was being designed. The now-famous sonnet was written by American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 as part of a fund-raiser for the statue. It wasn't until 1903, seventeen years after the statue was erected, that lines from Lazarus' poem were attached to the statue's pedestal.
French historian Edouard Laboulaye never saw those words as he died in Paris on May 25, 1883 as poet Lazarus was still writing her sonnet. Sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi died of tuberculosis in Paris on October 4, 1904, late enough to know about Lazarus' poem. However, he played no part in the attachment of the words to the pedestal of the statue.
In fact, "Lady Liberty" did not even denote freedom for women. As folklorist Barbara Babcock wrote in "Taking Liberties, Writing from the Margins and Doing it with a difference," women were banned from participating in Liberty's dedication ceremony on October 26, 1886. "As the suffragettes who circled Bedloe's Island in a boat at the dedication announced through a megaphone, if Liberty got down off her pedestal, she would not have been allowed to vote in either France or America."
The leading scholarly study of this topic was conducted by National Park Service anthropologist Rebecca M. Joseph. She says that the story about the statue's origins as taught to generations of American school children is simply not true. Joseph's report on her exhaustive study says:
The conventional interpretation of the statue as a monument to American immigrants is a twentieth-century phenomenon. In its early years (1871-1886), that view was only rarely and vaguely expressed, while references to the Civil War and abolition of slavery occur repeatedly from its first introduction to the United States in 1871 up to and including the dedication celebrations in 1886.
Joseph also wrote:
Official use of the statue's image to appeal to immigrants only began in earnest with public efforts to Americanize immigrant children and the government's advertising campaign for World War I bonds. The "immigrant" interpretation gained momentum in the 1930s as Americans prepared for war with Hitler and by the 1950s, it had become the predominant understanding of the statue's original purpose and meaning.
Rebecca M. Joseph also points out that the original model for the Statue of Liberty probably was an Egyptian woman, not a black woman.
If you have an interest in this topic, you should read The Black Statue of Liberty Rumor by National Park Service anthropologist Rebecca M. Joseph, available here.
Edouard Laboulaye http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edouard_Laboulaye
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederic-Auguste_Bartholdi
Was the model for the Statue of Liberty a chain-laden Black woman? http://www.snopes.com/history/american/liberty.htm
The Statue of Liberty is a Tribute to Black Slaves http://www.interfarfacing.com/Liberty_TributeBlackSlaves.html
Statue of Liberty's Origins Probed http://www.endex.com/gf/buildings/liberty/solnews/solap020600.htm
Monumental Rumor Sparks Fresh Research http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/weekly/aa020900a.htm