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Give Me Your Poor: The Story of How Emma Lazarus' Poem Became Eternally Connected To The Statue of Liberty

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 5, 2024 3:01 am

Give Me Your Poor: The Story of How Emma Lazarus' Poem Became Eternally Connected To The Statue of Liberty

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 5, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus" is forever connected to the Statue of Liberty. Here's the surprising story of how that came to be.

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That should brighten your day a little, actually a lot. So sign up now at That's This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And we love to hear your stories. Our listeners stories are adored here by our staff. We love to produce them, put them up on air, send them to

They're some of our favorites. Up next, a story about the remarkable woman who gave Lady Liberty her identity, Georgina Schuyler. Dr. Elizabeth Stone, journalist and professor of literature at Fordham University is here to tell the story of how the Statue of Liberty, a gift to America from France, designed by sculptor Frederick Bartholdi, came to be the worldwide symbol of freedom and opportunity we know today through a visionary woman named Georgina Schuyler, who recognized that a poem written by her friend Emma Lazarus could change the definition of the monument forever.

Let's get into it. It's a sonnet that's called the New Colossus because there was an old colossus. This is the New Colossus and it's a woman. 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 worldwide welcome. Her mild eyes command the air bridge harbor, that twin city's 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-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door. The statue begins really with a French historian named Edward Laboulaye, who was a strong abolitionist. He certainly believed in the American constitution. America and France were very much on the same or at least overlapping enlightenment pages about freedom. The French were pushing toward freedom and this was a country that was born with an idea of freedom. That was the original idea for the Statue of Liberty. It was to celebrate the end of slavery and Laboulaye was also a friend of Bartholdi.

But as time went on, 1870s turned into the 1880s, and it was clear that the idea he had would be divisive in the post-Civil War United States. So there was a sort of redirection. The statue celebrated freedom, but it also celebrated the French-American friendship and their joint idea of liberty enlightening the world. It was a gift, and the only stipulation that the French had was that the Americans had to pay for the pedestal, but they didn't raise all the funds they needed to. So there was a delay in building the statue and then getting it here.

And it was Joseph Pulitzer who nickel by nickel and dime by dime raised money from the readers of his newspaper and the funds were finally in place by 1886. It was really the people's statue. It was really the people's pedestal.

And so the installation of the statue took place in October of 1886. Cleveland was the president and there were big parades and lots of musicians and lots of boats and people watching. And it was a big celebration. However, it didn't mean that everybody was equally enthused. And there was a British journalist who said, yeah, the Americans took it because it was offered, but they didn't really want it. It was like they couldn't turn their back on a gift, but it didn't attract tourists. Initially it did, but it was a very expensive proposition for New York because originally it was New York that had to foot the bill, the electricity bill. So New York was footing a huge electricity bill for a statue that was a failed lighthouse.

So that didn't do much. Liberty enlightening the world was neoclassical, but it wasn't like the Lady Liberty we have today who almost seems like a person. By 1890, nobody really cared. The statue was in incredible disrepair. The island was in disrepair. When the statue started to turn green, nobody sort of knew what to do about that. They thought it was almost like a skin disease. And were they going to paint it?

And what were they going to do? It was the pandemic and I was bored. And so I started reading. I'd read every day of the New York Times I could get my hands on. And I started reading the archives and I was interested in the Statue of Liberty.

And I was certainly interested in the early 20th century because that coincided with my grandparents, all four of my grandparents' arrival in this country. And I was also, because I teach immigrant literature, I had been and still am a huge fan of Hamilton, the musical. So if you've seen Hamilton, the name Skylar leaps out at you. And so I was reading about how the poem, the Emma Lazarus poem got installed in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. And there was just one line and the line said, through her friend, Georgina Skylar.

And I thought, I wonder if that's the same Skylar. And you're listening to Dr. Elizabeth Stone tell the story of the Statue of Liberty. And as you're about to find out the woman who gave Lady Liberty her identity here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to our American now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.

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That's and live the Chumba life. And we return to Our American Stories and the story of Georgina Schuyler and their Statue of Liberty. Telling the story is Fordham University professor Elizabeth Stone, who wrote an article about Georgina Schuyler for the Smithsonian magazine that you can read for yourself. It's entitled The Woman Who Saved the Statue of Liberty. When we left off, the dots were starting to connect between Georgina Schuyler and the Statue of Liberty.

Let's return to the story. Georgina Schuyler lived a very, very invisible life. When she died, she had a 72 word obituary. In the times, she died of heart disease on Christmas Day in 1923 and lived with her sister at 570 Park Avenue and was the descendant of both General Schuyler of the Revolutionary War and Alexander Hamilton. And that was it.

72 words. As I looked and looked and looked, I found little tidbits of this and that. She gave money to an opera society that ran benefits for Italian immigrants. She gave money to education for women.

She gave money to Cooper Union, which provided free tuition for years. So I got very, very interested in her. She came from a family which was very, very political, very grounded in activism. She was herself a poet, an artist, a collaborator who shared the political vision of her family. She was the baby of the family and her sister would put most Fortune 500 CEOs to shame. I mean, her sister, Louisa, was remarkable. She worked with civil war vets. She was a philanthropist and worked with the blind, the mentally ill. She was an organizer and she recognized that you couldn't just, if you were wealthy, you couldn't just be Lady Bountiful anymore.

And you had to really know what the social needs were and you had to organize wealth accordingly. And that is what she did. The amazing part, Georgina was sort of like her work wife, is the only way I can put it. She was the younger sister. She was Louisa's helper. They were both single women.

They lived together their whole lives, but she didn't want to be in public really. What she was, was a composer and she would compose music to accompany existing poetry or biblical passages. And I don't think that's incidental because what she saw in Emma's in Emma's poem, she didn't put it to music, but she was the accompanist. She wasn't, she wasn't the poet.

She didn't want to do anything outright and open. What she did that is so remarkable is she understood that a poem possibly could change the definition of a monument and that that change in a monument could change history. The statue that Georgina saw through the eyes of Lazarus's poem is not the statue that was in the harbor and in front of everybody's eyes. It was not the idea of the statue that was in the harbor and in front of everybody's eyes.

So it was an imaginative act for something that was really defunct. And that's where I found her correspondence with Richard Watson Gilder, the New York Public Library, which has a Statue of Liberty archives. It was clear that they were, that Georgina and her sister and the Gilders, Helena and Richard Gilder, they were all friends. But what I wondered, I began to wonder and I thought, wait a second, Emma dies in 1887.

If Georgina wanted to memorialize her, why didn't she do it then? I knew that by the late 1800s and the early 1900s, there was a huge groundswell of nativism. And it was obvious to me that given, I couldn't prove it, but I saw how interested Georgina was as a progressive. I knew that she contributed financially to progressive causes, but that she never went into the limelight herself.

And what occurred to me was that the time had really come for her to step forward as a retort to the nativism of the day. And that was how she decided to act, when she decided to act, to get Emma's poem, put into the pedestal. She understood that monuments were permanent billboards, with Italians being denigrated as mafioso and black hand and really anti-Semitic posters depicting Jews.

She understood that the Statue of Liberty was going to be a big and permanent microphone. And it was not a poem that anybody knew. Emma Lazarus was a popular poet in her day. A lot of her poetry was being a champion for the Jews who were being hurt in the pogroms of Russia. And she was really, many, many scholars say she's the first Zionist, in that she was very aware that Jews were not welcome in the United States with open arms. And so she began to think about a homeland for Jews, ways that they could get out of Russia and be safe. So she and Georgina shared a passion for the arts and a passion for the downtrodden. So that was the link between them. Emma put her own sentiments into the mouth of the mother of exiles.

Give me your tired, your poor. I mean, at the time that she wrote that in 1883, there was nothing in New York Harbor. The statue hadn't even come. It was being put together by Bartholdi in France. But it was a very together by Bartholdi in France. But she went to a fundraiser to raise money for the Statue of Liberty's pedestal. And it was a, it was a gala. It was all the glitterati. It was the Whitney's and the Astors and the Vanderbilts. And she went in, she was asked to read her poem.

She went in knowing that all these wealthy people who had come to the National Academy of Design by invitation only were much more interested in silks and oriental rugs and sabers. They weren't really there to hear a poem about huddled masses, but she knew what she was doing with that poem. And she, in fact, did not, I want to be clear about this. She did not read the poem herself, but she wrote the poem and she understood the occasion that she was writing it for.

And she knew it was not going to be well received because it didn't go with the spirit of this. These people who wanted to be philanthropic, wanted to give money for the pedestal, wanted to support what was a neoclassical statue about liberty, enlightening the world, but they weren't necessarily also gung ho on rolling up their shirt sleeves and working with the huddled masses who were coming to New York. And you're listening to the story of Georgina Schuyler is told by Fordham University professor Elizabeth Stone and this remarkable connection between Schuyler and Emma Lazarus, the author of the poem so famously and eternally connected to the Statue of Liberty.

And the two of them shared an imagination and the love of the arts and of poetry and the ability of both to change not just the world, but in the end, the meaning of this statue and this statue, which was not even built yet. When Emma Lazarus wrote the poem, when we come back more of the story of Georgina Schuyler, the Statue of Liberty, and in the end, immigrants from everywhere who come to America for the very liberty the French and American Alliance was built upon. Our American stories continues after these messages. And we return to our American stories and the story of Georgina Schuyler with Dr. Elizabeth Stone. We'd last heard the meaning behind Emma Lazarus's poem, The New Colossus, as a call for sympathy and support for those emigrating to the United States and the United States of America. And we return to our American stories and the story of Georgina Schuyler with Dr. Elizabeth Stone. We'd last heard the meaning behind Emma Lazarus's poem, The New Colossus, as a call for sympathy and support for those emigrating to America at the turn of the century. Up next, how Georgina had a vision for the Statue of Liberty through the lens of the Lazarus poem and took decisive action to change the monument and its meaning forever.

Let's return to the story. And that brings us to 1902. I think she was very good friends with the Gilders. Richard Watson Gilder was, he was the equivalent of the editor of The Atlantic or The New Yorker. He was very political and he was Emma's publisher. He and Georgina and Louisa and his wife, they were all progressives and all interested in making this country open to everybody.

The first time Georgina stepped forward was in regard to the Statue of Liberty. She had wanted to do this clearly for a long time, but she couldn't do it as long as it was under the aegis of a federal agency, meaning the light board, the lighthouse board. But she knew that that was coming to an end. They'd wanted to get rid of it. They said it was useless for six, seven, eight, nine years, but nothing happened. But in 1901, the lighthouse board got rid of the Statue of Liberty and it was placed in the war department, which when you think about it was a little bit ridiculous since the Statue of Liberty's pedestal is on top of a decommissioned fort that was built in 1807.

And that was used to store supplies during the civil war and occasionally to house a prisoner, a civil war prisoner. But it's not clear what the war department has ever done with the Statue of Liberty. At any rate, once it was out of the hands and sort of retired and became a monument, then Georgina was free to act. And in 1901, she did act. There was a Statue of Liberty committee that was sort of in charge of, you can do this and you can't do this. And so what she did was she got permission for a bronze plaque. Then what happened was there were delays and delays and delays due to bureaucracy. Then she went to Europe with her sister and she then tried to work from afar to get the names of other people on that plaque as well. She ran into trouble there because one of the people she approached, he was a founder of the museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and he said he could not sign on to this plaque unless he was left out because it was far too vulgar.

He didn't want that phrase in there. So Watson Gilder had to handle this and that caused a delay. The Lazarus family also did not want anybody else, somehow they wanted to pay for it and they were told they could not pay for it because it was going into a public monument. So there were a lot of delays, a lot of delays, a lot of delays, public money.

So there were a lot of delays on, well, were they going to remove their approval? Georgina's brother had been involved in a privacy suit such that she knew that it was legally risky to go ahead with doing anything without the Lazarus family permission. And so she had to work very carefully. She and Gilder had to work very carefully to get the Lazarus family to sign on.

And eventually they did. Eventually she came back from being abroad and she had wanted there to be a little sort of gathering in the statue's pedestal to celebrate the hanging of the plaque. That I think did not happen, but there is a letter where she says to Josephine Lazarus, this will be wonderful.

This will, I'm not quoting directly, but this will both honor the country. It's good for the country and it's good to memorialize Emma. But the idea of putting the poem into the pedestal was her idea, which she did in collaboration with Gilder. It really was her show and she really was the impetus behind it. In 1890, there weren't a lot of Russian Jews.

In 1890, there weren't a lot of Southern Italians. What I really admire Georgina for is that she faced the same nativism, the same racism, the same antisemitism in the country. And she didn't give up. She acted.

It took a long time and there were lots of permissions to get and it was bureaucracy and that caused the delay. But she was a visionary in the same way. She wasn't Alexander Hamilton, but she was a visionary in the way that he was and that her family was, which was always planning for a correction that would take place in time. She wasn't just doing what she was doing for the moment. And she wasn't just doing it to memorialize Emma. She was doing it politically for a future that she would not live to see.

She never got credit for what she tactfully created. I think one of the reasons Georgina didn't get the attention she deserved is because after, I don't know, name your year, but anyone born by 1935, and that they're now in their eighties, and nobody remembers the statue before she was Lady Liberty. Nobody remembers the definition, the rebranding, which is what I think of it as the rebranding of Liberty enlightening the world to Lady Liberty who defends huddled masses and the weary and the poor and the tired. That was all because Georgina took Emma's forgotten poem and gave her an identity by putting that poem in the pedestal.

And once the statue and the words were together, the redefinition of Liberty into what she's now become and what people think she always was, it began. A terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Maggie Wackenot. And a special thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Stone. She's a journalist and also a professor of literature at Fordham University. My brother graduated from the School of Law there. And what a story we learned about the confluence of art and imagination.

Emma Lazarus writes this poem, but it is Georgina Schuyler's work that puts it on the Statue of Liberty. By the way, if you've visited, and I've visited many times, my immigrant grandparents, the Italian and Lebanese side, were sworn as citizens there at Ellis Island, not far from that statue. And the Italian side of my family, not welcome necessarily in the early part of the 20th century, Italians facing real, real racism and discrimination. And this is a part of life everywhere, folks.

Not everybody is always welcome everywhere. America has that distinct and unique feature of bringing people from everywhere to the great shores of this country. And my goodness, the words, well, you heard them in the beginning. And they are words that live forever. They define not just the statue in the end, not just a gift from France, but in the end define the nation itself and how the world views us and how we view people from the rest of the world. The story of Georgina Schuyler, also the story of Emma Lazarus in a way, and their unique connection, and the story of the Statue of Liberty and America here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-08 11:17:04 / 2024-02-08 11:26:07 / 9

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