For over a hundred and twenty years the Statue of Liberty has greeted immigrants to these shores with open arms and the promise of the kind of freedom that they had never known. As a result, that towering, stately, and majestic lady has come to represent the quintessential symbol of freedom, liberty, and justice for people all over the world. Just the sight of her brought hope and inspiration to millions of European immigrants as they entered New York Harbor, and that initial vision sustained them as they started their new lives in America.
The scene must have seemed surreal as their boats slowly moved past her in the harbor. Oceans of tears must have flowed as the immigrants stared in awe at this magnificent lady. In her right hand she held the burning flame of passion and enlightenment--outstretched and high, as though reaching for the very face of God. In her left arm she held the tablet that represents the rule of law, and the guarantee of equal justice for all, and on her right foot, the broken shackle of a freed slave. That's right-millions of European immigrants were welcomed to America by the statue of a freed slave.
On the pedestal upon which she stood, were the words that had inspired their journey. It says... "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse to your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
As a child in school I was taught that the idea of the Statue of Liberty was conceived by a Frenchman, Edouard Laboulaye, as a monument to the collaboration and friendship of the United States and France during the Revolutionary war, and that it was sculpted by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. But at the urging of one of our readers I revisited the issue, and did a little research. As a result, I found that Laboulaye did indeed conceive of the Statue of Liberty, but not as a monument to the Revolutionary War. The Statue of Liberty was conceived as a monument to the end of slavery, and to honor those men, women and children who had been enslaved.
Laboulaye conceived of the Statue of Liberty in 1865. That was a hundred years after the Revolutionary War, but it just happened to be the very year that the Civil War came to an end. And it also turns out that Laboulaye wasn't just any Frenchman--he was not only an abolitionist who had dedicated his entire life to the abolishment of slavery, he was a leader of the French abolitionist movement. In addition, the sculptor who actually created the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, was connected with the abolitionist movement as well.
In an Associated Press interview, Richard Newman, a research officer at Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research is quoted as saying, "It is widely believed in academic circles that Laboulaye meant for the statue to honor the slaves, as well as mark the recent Union victory in the Civil War and the life of Abraham Lincoln."
The Statue of Liberty wasn't actually completed until 1886, but there's a 21 inch replica of the statue that was completed in 1870 on display at the Museum of the City of New York. That replica, or, original, is not white, it's terra cotta (brownish-orange), and it is said to have been designed in the likeness of a Black woman. In addition, the replica has a broken shackle around her left hand. The 151 foot statue in New York Harbor has a more . . . Discrete shackle around her foot.
The words at the base of the Statue of Liberty from the poem, "The New Colossus", by Emma Lazarus wasn't added to the statue until 1903, during a time when there was a huge surge in European immigration, and that's when the fiction began. During an interview with the Associated Press, Rebecca M. Joseph, a Boston-based Park service anthropologist is quoted as saying, "There is wide agreement that Liberty's now-familiar association with immigration was not planned by the statue's creators."
Nevertheless the thoroughly ironic scene of European immigrants weeping as they passed the Lady's flame must have played out thousands of times. It's the stuff that movies are made of--and just like most movies, the irony of a magnificent subplot churned discretely beneath the surface. One of the ironies is that now, many the grandchildren of some of those very same immigrants--those indigent immigrants that Lady Liberty welcomed into this country with open arms--have used voting fraud, unfair labor practices, redlining, blatant discrimination, and every other device, in an attempt to undermine the very people that we now know the Lady was originally created to embrace.
So irony is the operative word in this piece, and exquisite in its irony is the deplorable state of ingratitude of many of the people that this magnificent symbol of Black liberation welcomed to the country. It is all but a complete indictment on human nature that some of the very same people that Lady Liberty served as a symbol of hope, and who she welcomed to this country as literal vagrants, would now attempt to slam the door of hope and justice on the very people that she was created to enshrine.
Considering that ironic twist brought a tear to my eye as I researched this issue, because as a kid, I couldn't help but be awed by the majesty of that Lady--and that was in spite of the fact that I thought she was created for everybody but people like me. But now to find that she was created specifically for me, and even that was stolen, is almost too much to bear. Just think of how many young Black lives might have been salvaged just by the simple nudge to their self-esteem that something so grand and majestic could have provided had they known what it was created to represent. Just the knowledge of it alone could have given them the sense of pride, dignity, and purpose that might very well sustained them throughout their lives.
But in spite of that, or maybe because of it, the Lady continued to hold her flame high as a tantalizing subplot silently played itself out beneath the surface. For even as the pernicious indulged in their evil machinations, yet another immigrant quietly sailed passed the Lady's burning flame. He was a solitary young man from Kenya, who presented papers in the name of Barack Obama.
I'm sure the immigration official laughed as he examine the papers and said, "Who?" But little did he know that it wouldn't be long before the entire world would answer his question.
Eric L. Wattree, Sr. can be reached at