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Seeds of Liberty
Silent her voice has been,
since first her spirit born.
The truth of why she stands today
has yet to be learned.
The end of slavery many years
comes now to wipe away Africa’s children’s tears.
Open shackles at her feet speak of victory not defeat.
War now ended freedom won,
America’s road to peace begun.
Speak now Lady Liberty and tell us why
you hold your golden torch so high.
To shine on all no matter the skin,
to let you know that all are kin.
Embrace the light and truth you now know,
break the dam and let justice flow.
Never again lock the chains
that enslaved both the enslaver and the slaved.
And when in doubt as to why I stand.
Look at my feet and understand!
I wrote the above poem in 2004. It was written at a time when few individuals were aware of the original meaning of the Statue of Liberty. It was considered controversial and threatened to scar the traditional view of Lady Liberty as a symbol of welcoming European immigrants to America.
Like a gardener who plants seeds and waits for the right conditions for crops to grow, historians often come across information that is not popular at the time and wait for the right time to bring it forth. As an African American historian born, reared and educated in the South, with an interest in American slavery and plantation life, I have come across many things that were not considered a part of the educational or social mainstream and not ready to be accepted by many in society.
As we celebrate Juneteenth and the 400th year observance of Africans in America, 1619-2019, and the opening of the Statue of Liberty Museum in New York City on May 16, 2019, the right conditions have come together to reveal the original meaning of the Statue of Liberty and its connections to the end of slavery and Juneteenth.
In the Washington Post, May 23, Gillian Brockell notes:
“The new Statue of Liberty Museum in New York Harbor boasts a number of treasures: the original torch, which was replaced in the 1980s; an unoxidized cooper replica of Lady Liberty’s face; and recordings of immigrants describing the sight of the 305-foot monument. It also revives an aspect of the statue’s long-forgotten history: Lady Liberty was originally designed to celebrate the end of slavery, not the arrival of immigrants. Ellis Island, the inspection station through which millions of immigrants passed, didn’t open until six years after the statue was unveiled in 1886. The plaque with the famous Emma Lazarus poem – ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free’ – wasn’t added until 1903.”
The Statue of Liberty was inspired by Edouard de Laboulaye, a French jurist who was an expert on the U.S. Constitution. He also co-founded the French Antislavery Society, which worked for the abolishment of American slavery. He first discussed the possibility of the Statue of Liberty with Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, in 1865, the year the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Galveston, Texas, ending slavery in the states in rebellion against the Union – commemorated now as Juneteenth.
As an LA Progressive article, entitled Statue of Liberty Wears Chains and Shackles Honoring Freed Slaves, notes:
“The connection between the Statue of Liberty and the abolition of slavery is one that has been denied for 125 years. Almost from the start of the project, the American financiers wanted no mention of slavery and for 125 years they got their wish. Although Laboulaye and Batholdi had envisioned a statue holding broken chains and shackles, the early financiers that funded the project did not want chains on the monument. It was the American backers who were most opposed to the notion that the statue should in any way acknowledge slavery.”
While a noble vision at the time, American backers were not prepared for such a radical image to stand in the New York Harbor celebrating the end of American slavery during the statue’s dedication in 1886.
The U.S. National Park Services article, Abolition – Statue of Liberty National Monument, notes:
“Laboulaye hoped that by calling attention to the recent achievements in the United States, the French people would be inspired to call for their own democracy in the face of repressive monarchy. When Laboulaye’s Statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” was completed, it not only represented democracy, but also symbolized American independence and the end of all types of servitude and oppression. A broken shackle and chain lie at the statue’s right foot. The chain disappears beneath the draperies, only to reappear in front of her left foot, its end link broken. However, although the broken shackle is a powerful image, the meaning behind it was not yet a reality for African Americans in 1886.”
Like dormant seeds of freedom planted years ago, the truth of the meaning of the Statue of Liberty is slowly breaking through the soil of the American experience. Its promises of freedom and justice, having been denied thousands of African Americans since the end of slavery, have only been compounded by Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights.
Again, Abolition-Statue of Liberty National Monument notes:
“After the statue’s dedication in 1886, the Black Press began to debunk romantic notions of the Statue of Liberty and American History. Racism and discrimination toward African Americans did not end after the Civil War, or with the dedication of the statue. It continued on for more than a century.”
Now 154 years after Edouard de Laboulaye envisioned the Statue of Liberty, and 133 years after its dedication, we are able to embrace its true meaning. This new truth should expand our national identity and conversation on what it means to be Americans.
For more information, google The New York Times article by Julia Jacobs, May 15, 2019, entitled New Statue of Liberty Museum Illuminates a Forgotten History. Be sure to view the brief video in the article.
I invite you to join me on June 19 at noon at the African American Museum for a free lecture I will give entitled, “Liberating Lady Liberty, Juneteenth and The Real Meaning of the Statue of Liberty.”
Let the conversation begin.
Clarence Glover, known as Professor Freedom, is a historian and president of Sankofa Education Services. On the second week of each month, Glover provides a column on Sankofa Garden Homes with the purpose of taking the chains off our brains so our minds can work. He can be reached at email@example.com.