About three years ago when a new museum opened at the Statue of Liberty, it gave visitors and others the chance to explore its history and its significance to the world. Apart from finding the original torch and flame, as well as a replica of Lady Liberty’s face, the new Statue of Liberty Museum in New York called attention to what many had forgotten: that the Statue of Liberty or Lady Liberty was originally created to celebrate the end of slavery, not the arrival of immigrants.
The 305-foot statue opened in 1886. That was six years before the government opened Ellis Island, the inspection site that millions of immigrants would pass through. The plaque with the iconic poem by Emma Lazarus — “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — was not added until 1903.
Édouard de Laboulaye, a French political thinker, U.S. Constitution expert and abolitionist first thought about creating the monument while in France. A member of the French Anti-Slavery Society, Laboulaye also supported U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and “saw abolition not only as a way to eliminate immorality, but also as a way to protest repressive tendencies in France.”
He was one who often went to America to give speeches and when he heard that slavery had been abolished there, he was thrilled. He decided to create a monument as a gift from France to the U.S. following the Union victory over the Confederacy. Historian Edward Berenson told The Washington Post that in June 1865, Laboulaye held a meeting with some French abolitionists at his home in Versailles, where they “talked about the idea of creating some kind of commemorative gift that would recognize the importance of the liberation of the slaves.”
Laboulaye then contacted sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who started working towards the monument. His early model, in 1870, shows Lady Liberty with her right arm in the position many know today. The arm is raised with a torch illuminating the world. However, in her left hand are broken shackles, symbolizing an end to slavery. Some historians say that her face evolved from a colossal statue Bartholdi had proposed for the Suez Canal, for which Bartholdi used his drawings of Egyptian women as models.
Others say that Bartholdi based the statue on the Roman goddess Libertas, who usually wears a Phrygian cap, traditionally worn by freed Roman slaves.
Lady Liberty, in the final model, holds a tablet inscribed with the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. The broken chains are there but now beneath her feet. Bartholdi had to travel to the U.S. several times to get support for the colossal monument. Getting into New York Harbor, he found the ideal location for the statue — Bedloe’s Island. He and Laboulaye also set up committees in France and the U.S. to raise funds.
It was agreed that France would raise funds for the statue while Americans raised money for the pedestal, according to a report by the National Park Service. “Bartholdi involved himself and his work in the fundraising efforts, displaying the torch and arm in Philadelphia and New York, and the head and shoulders in Paris, all while selling miniatures and charging admission in some cases. As money came in, Bartholdi oversaw the construction of the statue at the warehouse of Gaget, Gauthier & Co,” the report added.
Essentially, by 1884, Lady Liberty was completed and put together in Paris while construction workers started building the statue’s pedestal on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor. The colossus was taken apart in Paris to prepare for shipment to America. In 1886, it was reconstructed in New York. The Statue of Liberty, formally entitled “Liberty Enlightening the World”, was unveiled with much fanfare on October 28, 1886.
“My dream has been realized,” Batholdi told reporters at the inauguration. “I can only say that I am enchanted. This thing will live to eternity, when we shall have passed away, and everything living with us has moldered away.”
Amid Jim Crow laws, African Americans and the Black press did not find anything exciting about Lady Liberty, criticizing it as representing a nation that was still not free. A month after the statue opened to the public, the Cleveland Gazette, an African-American newspaper, ran an editorial titled “Postponing Bartholdi’s statue until there is liberty for colored as well.”
“Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean,” the newspaper wrote, “until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed. The idea of the ‘liberty’ of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme.”