The Crusader Newspaper Group

Statue of Liberty was for freed slaves

New York Times, Washington Post articles confirm what scholars already knew

Crusader Staff Report

It’s one of America’s most famous icons that has welcomed millions of immigrants seeking a better life. For over a century the Statue of Liberty has graced New York Harbor with her torch, crown and tablet.

VISITORS HARDLY NOTICE the chains on the feet of the Statue of Liberty which references the emancipation of freed slave
VISITORS HARDLY NOTICE the chains on the feet of the Statue of Liberty, which references the emancipation of freed slave.

At the bottom of this 303-foot-structure is an object that reveals the true story of a national landmark that very few Americans know about. The Statue of Liberty was built for freed slaves, not immigrants. The forgotten story has been long documented in Black newspapers, books and documentaries.

In the past several weeks, the New York Times and Washington Post have published stories that confirm what scholars have known for decades. The gift that France gave to the United States was intended to celebrate the abolition of slavery in  America.

The monument began with a French abolitionist who was the undisputed “Father of the Statue of Liberty.” His name was Edouard de Laboulaye, president of the French Anti-Slavery Society.

LEFT: AN UNDATED photo of French abolitionist Édouard de Laboulaye. Right: Sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi in 1880. (National Library of France; Smithsonian Institution)

After the United States’ Civil War in 1865, Laboulaye conceived the idea of a gift to the United States to memorialize President Abraham Lincoln and celebrate the end of slavery. He enlisted sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who took an unused design he had created for a lighthouse near the Suez Canal, and turned it into a monument for America.

In one of Bartholdi’s early models in 1870, Lady Liberty is shown holding broken chains in her left hand, as a reference to emancipation. Bartholdi based the statue on Libertas, the Roman goddess who is usually depicted wearing a Phrygian cap, traditionally worn by freed Roman slaves.

In Bartholdi’s final model, the broken chains in the statue’s hand were replaced with a tablet that represented the rule of law. The broken shackle and chains lie beneath Lady Liberty’s feet, making it nearly impossible for visitors to view at most angles.

To raise money for the statue’s pedestal, Emma Lazarus wrote the 1883 poem, “The New Colossus,” describing the statue welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The poem wasn’t affixed to the pedestal until 1903, after Lazarus’ death.

02 01Lady Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886. Then-President Grover Cleveland led a ceremony where Bartholdi, who was perched in the statue’s torch, pulled a rope, removing a large French flag from the front of the statue, revealing Lady Liberty’s face to the crowd.

Black newspapers criticized the statue, which was dedicated during a time when Reconstruction promised but failed to deliver millions of Blacks equal status as whites.

A month after Lady Liberty’s opening, one Black newspaper, the Cleveland Gazette, wrote, “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 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.”

Civil rights activist and scholar WEB Du Bois wrote in his autobiography that when he sailed past Lady Liberty on a trip returning home from Europe, he had a hard time feeling the hope that inspired so many European immigrants. As a Black man, Du Bois felt that he didn’t have access to the freedoms she promised.

Six years after the statue opened, the U.S. government opened Ellis Island, the inspection site that more than 12 million immigrants would pass through in the decades to come. Over the years, the original story behind Lady Liberty would fade as the statue would grow to become a symbol for 12 million immigrants arriving at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.

Some 4.5 million people visit the Statue of Liberty each year, traveling on ferries that service Liberty Island. Last month, the National Park Service opened the Statue of Liberty Museum to great crowds.

Recent News

Scroll to Top