The new Statue of Liberty Museum, which opened Thursday in New York Harbor, brings to light a little-spoken-of aspect of the statue’s history: Lady Liberty was originally intended celebrate the end of slavery, not the arrival of immigrants.
The commonly taught idea that the Statue of Liberty pays homage to Ellis Island, the famous immigration inspection station, doesn’t hold water as fact, or add up to the dates of history. Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892, six years after the statue was given as a gift from France in 1886. So how could this larger-than-life monument be homage for a then non-existent Ellis Island?
It wasn’t. That’s the whole point.
Many people today think the 305-foot statue in the New York Harbor is to welcome incoming immigrants, and they support this claim by 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 …” But the plaque with the famous Lazarus poem wasn’t added until 1903.
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, “One of the first meanings (of the statue) had to do with abolition, but it’s a meaning that didn’t stick.”
The tourist attraction, which draws 4.5 million visitors a year, was first thought of by Édouard de Laboulaye. In June 1865, Laboulaye met with a group of other French abolitionists at his summer home in Versailles.
“They talked about the idea of creating some kind of commemorative gift that would recognize the importance of the liberation of the slaves,” Berenson said.
Laboulaye and his colleagues hired sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi to complete the project. In a circa 1870 early model of what we now know as Lady Liberty, she clearly holds broken shackles, an image to mark the end of slavery. The clay model can be seen at the Museum of the City of New York.
In the final model, Lady Liberty instead holds a tablet inscribed with the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. The broken chains are still there though, beneath her feet, “but they’re not all that visible,” Berenson said, adding to how easily the true history was able to be forgotten.
“Liberty Enlightening the World” was unveiled to the public on Oct. 28, 1886—and the original intent of the celebration, the story of African slavery in America, was masked by fireworks, a military parade, and Bartholdi climbing to the top of the statue and pulling a French flag from Lady Liberty’s face.
In fact, according to the Washington Post, black newspapers decried the statue, pomp, and circumstance as hypocritical nonsense. By 1886, the same year of the statue’s unveiling, the Supreme Court had rolled back civil rights protections, and Jim Crow laws were becoming more prevalent.
W.E.B. Du Bois also recalled seeing the statue in 1894, arriving in New York after living in Europe for two years. He said: “I know not what multitude of emotions surged in the others, but I had to recall (a) mischievous little French girl whose eyes twinkled as she said: ‘Oh, yes, the Statue of Liberty! With its back toward America, and its face toward France!’”
And now you know the truth most history books refuse to teach our children.
The Statue of Liberty Museum is free with a ferry ticket ($18.50 for adults, $9 for children ages 4 to 12) to Liberty Island. Details at LibertyEllisFoundation.org.