The true story of the Statue of Liberty is not new to many scholars and researchers and to people who read extensively about the history of African-Americans. However, it remains a hidden history to the great masses of American people.
The Statue of Liberty originally stood as a symbol of freed slaves. The broken chains at its feet symbolized the release from bondage. The original model of the statue was that of a black woman. A number of articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers on this subject.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from France. There were many abolitionists in France who openly opposed slavery. One of the most prominent leaders of the French anti-slavery movement was Edouard Rene de Laboulaye, the intellectual creator of the statue. He was moved by the end of the Civil War in the United States. A sculptor named Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was chosen to design the monument. Bartholdi traveled throughout Africa, and the model he used for the statue was that of an African woman.
In 2001, the History Channel produced a documentary on the true story of the Statue of Liberty. It included the work of Rebecca Joseph, a National Park Service researcher. She noted on the program that one of the telling clues of the history of the statue was the choice of the Goddess of Liberty. It was used for a very long time in this country as a symbol of the abolitionist movement.
Joseph said the other key element is the mosaic tablet featured prominently in the left hand of the statue. Mosaic tablets have also appeared as a symbol of the anti-slavery society.
The one mystery that the documentary cleared up was the location of the broken chains. Joseph said: "At the statue's feet lay the most telling of all anti-slavery symbols -- broken chains. Most people don't realize that the broken chains are at the foot of the Statue of Liberty because you cannot see them from the observation deck. The only way you can see them is either from an aerial photograph, or if you fly over it."
On Oct. 28, 1886, the statue was inaugurated in New York Harbor. The day was declared a public holiday and President Grover Cleveland was there to accept this gift from France. Joseph noted that during the ceremony, a number of anti-slavery speeches were given by prominent members of the abolitionist movement. This was the last time the Statue of Liberty was openly associated with the freedom of slaves.
Millions of immigrants have passed the statue and continue to see it as a symbol of America's open arms. But the tourists who visit it each year are not introduced to its full history.
In their book titled, "I Lift My Lamp: The Way of a Symbol," published in 1948, authors Hertha Pauli and E.B. Ashton wrote the following: "The Statue of Liberty's creators celebrated a universal idea of liberty and freedom made possible by the evolution of democratic institutions under constitutional government to a second, more particular meaning became associated with the statue, as a monument to the end of American slavery after the Civil War." The authors described the statue as the "abolitionists' triumphal column."
Additional sources for those interested in learning more about the history of the Statue of Liberty include the following:
"Liberty: the French-American Statues in Art and History" (1986). "The Journey of the Songhai People" (1987) by Calvin Robinson and Edward W. Robinson Jr. "Birth of a Dream," New York Post, June 17, 1986, page 29. "Mlle. Liberte," New York Times Magazine, May 18, 1986. "Journal of Negro History," Vol. 18, July 1933, Pages 246-255.
Eva M. Doyle is a columnist for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the last in a four-part series.