Was the Statue of Liberty really a black woman and a symbol of emancipation?

Was the Statue of Liberty really a black woman and a symbol of emancipation?

The Statue of Liberty is our national symbol, so it’s only natural that rumors and conspiracies would swirl around her.  People speculate that she’ll be blown up in a terrorist attack, take off walking across the harbor, is the epicenter of the Illuminati in the United States.

But I’d never heard this one before I spent a lot of time at Ellis Island. In the late 1990’s, Ellis Island was deluged with letters claiming that Lady Liberty was modeled after a French woman and was a symbol of emancipation. The popular interpretation that she was a symbol of immigrant freedom was a large scale cover-up by a white-controlled government. Like in most conspiracy theories, these theorists could point to plenty of examples to prove their point, but aren’t taken too seriously.  In this case, however, Ellis Island paid a researcher to confirm or deny rumors about Lady Liberty’s race and intended message once and for all.

In kindergarten, we all learn the story of the Statue of Liberty.  She was a gift to the United States from France symbolizing the friendly relations between the two countries. The artist, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, modeled her after the goddess of freedom and put the Declaration of Independence in her arms. She was dedicated and installed on Liberty Island in 1886.  She came to celebrate the freedoms enjoyed on American soil. You know, immigrants saw her through the drizzling rain, her torch will shine forever, etc…

But in 1998 Ellis Island began receiving a stream of letters saying that the true purpose of the Statue had been misrepresented in some sort of national cover up, beginning at the time of her dedication.

Here are the claims:

 1.)    The original Statue of Liberty in France is black and modeled after a black woman. 

2.)    Immediately following the death of President Lincoln, French historian Eduourd de Laboulaye, an abolitionist, worked with Bartholdi to create a gift to the United States and to the black soldiers who helped win the Civil War.

3.)    At the dedication, the original meaning of the sculpture, the emancipation of slaves, was not as important to white Americans as was the adopted meaning, the freedom of newly immigrated Europeans. 

The National Park Service’s Rebecca Joseph, an anthropologist, was called in to examine some of the claims.  Here are the answers she found:

 1.)    Bartholdi drew inspiration for his Statue of Liberty from a huge sculpture he wanted to construct in Egypt.  The models for this Egyptian sculpture were Egyptian women, but there was no real woman of any race that he used specifically as a model.

2.)    Bartholdi conceived of the sculpture after Laboulaye’s death. No proof could be found that the sculpture was intended to be used to commemorate black soldiers’ contributions to the Civil War.  In fact, says Joseph, Bartholdi wasn’t very political in art or in life.

3.)    The Statue symbolizing the freedom in America for new immigrants was not its original purpose and was not adopted in large numbers until after World War II.  Before the Statue’s unveiling in 1886, few immigrants had seen the Statue at all.  The government began using the Statue to appeal to American nationalism in order to homogenize immigrant children and to sell war bonds during World War I.  It wasn’t until after WWII, during which Lady Liberty had symbolized American nationalism against Hitler, that the Statue’s status as the symbol of American freedom was secured. 

It seems like there isn’t much truth to the claims that Statue of Liberty was expressly used as a representation of emancipation or that she was a black woman.  But American nationalism aside, it seems that the Statue can be seen to represent all types of American freedom, emancipation included.