Welcoming Refugees: How the Statue of Liberty Became the “Mother of Exiles”

By Robin Jacobson. 

For millions of immigrants, their first glimpse of America was the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. The statue – with its famous engraved poem about embracing the “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” – greeted ships carrying the poor and persecuted. Today, amid the Syrian refugee crisis, the Statue of Liberty has become newly relevant: a humane symbol of tolerance and welcome, it stands in counterpoint to harrowing reports of razor-wire fences, tear gas, and water cannons at closed borders.

Surprisingly, though, the Statue of Liberty originally had no connection with immigrants or refugees. The statue’s meaning and mission was transformed by an American Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). Read about her in biographies by Esther Schor, Bette Roth Young, and Eve Merriam (all in our library). Here are highlights from a remarkable story.

A Monumental Gift

In 1875, French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi began work on a massive statue entitled Liberty Enlightening the World. The statue was to be a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. It would celebrate both the American centennial and the Franco-American commitment to liberty. The statue, a robed goddess, was to evoke the legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. That gargantuan statue had also guarded a harbor entrance.

Although the Liberty statue was a gift, the United States had to fund and build a pedestal for it. Fundraisers planned a gala art exhibition accompanied by the auction of a portfolio of artwork and writings by notable Americans.

Emma Lazarus

In 1883, the pedestal fundraisers asked Emma Lazarus, an eminent poet and essayist, for a poem to be included in the arts auction. Lazarus initially demurred, but later wrote 14 immortal lines.  Her poem reimagined the statue’s identity as the “Mother of Exiles” and America’s mission as providing a haven for the homeless:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Why did Emma Lazarus identify with the plight of immigrants?  She was not an immigrant herself or even the child of immigrants. Rather, she was a wealthy, fourth generation American, a secular Jew at home with the cultured Manhattan elite. But Lazarus did have deep, personal experience with refugees.

Beginning in 1881, thousands of Russian Jews emigrated, fleeing violent pogroms. Many were housed in miserable conditions on Ward’s Island in New York City. Lazarus made these refugees her cause: she visited, taught classes, and advocated for better housing, food, and sanitation. She even promoted a Jewish national home in Palestine, years before Herzl became a Zionist.

At the statue’s dedication in 1886, no one mentioned refugees or The New Colossus, but by 1903, Lazarus’s friends succeeded in having the poem engraved on a plaque within the statue’s pedestal. The poem and the statue have been united ever since, beloved by immigrants and their descendants for the promise of a new life in America.