Black Liberty? — Why the Statue of Liberty was born Black in Paris

Dr. Scott Lankford
Aug 31, 2018 · 11 min read
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Paris Photos by joSon, a prominent contemporary African American /Asian photographer. Winner of the 2018 Prix de la Photographie in the category “Nature” (copyright by josonstudio.com )

No one thinks of the Statue of Liberty as an American in Paris. Yet her famous features once towered over Montmartre, where the Basilica of the Sacré Couer now towers over Paris today.

And therein lies a tragic tale of courage, blood, betrayal, and Liberty.

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Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for June 1885, showing the Statue of Liberty in Paris — plus her iron backbone.

Several smaller-scale models of Lady Liberty remain on display in Paris still today. One scaled-down Lady Liberty gracefully raises her torch from an island in the Seine just behind the Eiffel Tower.

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Another full-sized Flame of Liberty serves as the unofficial global memorial to Lady Diana, Princess of Wales — whose brief life, like a “candle in the wind,” was snuffed out in a fiery accident in the traffic tunnel located just beneath Liberty’s immortal fire.

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All of which makes Lady Liberty perhaps the most visible American in Paris of them all — with apologies to Kim Kardashian. But stripped naked of her original meaning, and even stripped naked of slavery’s now largely-invisible chains.

Lost Legacy

Instead America’s beloved Statue of Liberty was first forged in France explicitly to celebrate the abolition of American slavery under Abraham Lincoln — and to oppose the reimposition of imperial dictatorship in France itself.

Today those same shattered chains of slavery still lie visibly at Lady Liberty’s naked feet in New York harbor. Yet surprisingly few Americans know of their existence, much less grasp their symbolic meaning in French and American history.

Talk about broken links…

Goddess of Liberty

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These French Mariannes, in turn, had a long line of invisible sisters stretching back to classical antiquity, and forward to the Renaissance. Hence in version after version, clone after clone, the meaning and form of these rapidly-multiplying Mariannes’ continued morph magically within French culture itself.

Even goddesses get makeovers in Paris, apparently.

A Muslim Marianne?

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Artist’s rendering of Berthouldi’s original Egyptian Collosus

In effect, Marianne had become a Muslim.

Grandly entitled “Egypt Enlightening Asia,” Bartholdi’s Pharaoh-like plans to overshadow the Pyramids never really got off the ground. Luckily, his bold new concept caught the eye of Édouard Laboulaye in France — a man still hailed today as one of the most powerful and courageous anti-slavery crusaders of all time. If anyone in France was prepared to grasp the beauty and significance of dark-skinned Muslim Marianne holding aloft her broken chains, it was he.

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Édouard René de Laboulaye

Laboulaye’s Liberation

Yet when the democratically-elected President of the French Second Republic, Louis Napoleon, once again crowned himself emperor Napoleon III (“it’s dêja vu all over again!”), Laboulaye immediately leapt back into the Revolutionary fray: fiercely opposing, among other outrages, the new Emperor’s reactionary plans to send funds and reinforcements to aid America’s slave-holding Confederacy during the darkest hours of the American Civil War — and thereby forestalling the first ominous steps toward the potential re-establishment of slavery in France.

To quote Yogi Berra once more, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”

Had Laboulaye and his allies not succeeded, French imperial intervention in American politics might once again have changed the course of world history forever — much as it had during the American War of Independence back in 1776. Only this time the tragic outcome would have been the reinstatement of slavery globally (and the bitter defeat of Abolitionist forces in North America, and eventually in Europe).

Not surprisingly it was the abolitionist Laboulaye, not the artist Bartholdi, who first gave this newly-morphed American Marianne her new name “Liberty Enlightening the World” — emphatically underlining the explicit anti-slavery and anti-tyranny themes at the very heart and soul of her conception.

In effect, building the Statue of Liberty for America allowed Laboulaye to very publicly celebrate Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — while more subtly denouncing the newly-resurgent French imperial dictatorship. No stranger to such strategies, previously Laboulaye had accomplished much the same goal by publishing a multi-volume history of America in France, trumpeting America’s political freedoms (despite the new Emperor’s reactionary opposition to exactly the same freedoms in France).

In the words of the U.S. National Park Service, “Laboulaye hoped that by calling attention to the recent achievements of the United States, the French people would be inspired to call for their own democracy in the face of a repressive monarchy.”

Broken Chains

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And that’s exactly where those broken shackles remain to this day — with links ten feet tall.

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National Park Service photo

So why then are so few Americans today aware that Lady Liberty’s broken shackles exist at all? Most of us seem more concerned by broken links on our webpages.

Worse yet, why are so many Americans utterly unaware that Lady Liberty was originally conceived to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation?

In my view, three historical accidents offer partial explanations:

Pedestal Problems

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Early Architect’s Sketch for Liberty’s Pedestal

Ironically, the massive pedestal on Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty stands today was specifically constructed to hold her high aloft in full view of ships entering New York Harbor; yet that also means that same pedestal is sufficiently massive that it effectively shields Lady Liberty’s feet from view from below.

Hence literally millions of tourists walk right underneath Liberty’s broken chains, oblivious of their invisible presence above.

Tragically, much of the funding for that pedestal was first painstakingly raised, litearlly penny by penny, from the hands of newly-freed former slaves (and their freeborn children) — all of whom proudly hoped to help celebrate and commemorate their liberation. Instead the pedestal’s massive height, which their contributions co-funded, accidentally obscured that same message from posterity.

Safe Harbors

Now had the Statue of Liberty had simply been placed somewhere else (let’s say somewhere in Washington D.C.) it might more easily have retained its original iconic anti-slavery message. Instead Lady Libety eventually became instead a shining symbol of America’s open-door policy to immigrants of all nations, regardless of poverty or wealth, race or religion.

The New Colossus

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Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus, herself the distant grand-daughter of European immigrants (her family had been in America since long before the Revolution) first wrote her famous poem in praise of the Statue of Liberty in 1883 — all as part of American fundraising efforts to pay for installing the statue. Yet for the next twenty years the poem disappeared completely: not until 1903 was the poem itself rediscovered, and installed (in the form of a bronze plaque) to the base of the Lady Liberty forever.

By that time Emma Lazarus had been dead for 17 years.

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American Poet Emma Lazarus

Yet as if speaking from beyond the grave, her poem reawoke and rewrote the meaning and message of the Statue of Liberty itself almost completely — virtually eclipsing Bartholdi’s and Laboulaye’s original intent.

Entitled “The New Colossus,” Lazarus’s poem does make accurate reference to one of Bartholdi’s primary inspirations: the long-lost Colossus of Rhodes which classical antiquity had once counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

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Amcient Colossus of Rhodes as imagined by an artist in 1880

But in it’s ringing second stanza, she specifically rejects these classical allusions: “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,” Lazarus retorts, naming Lady Liberty her new “Mother of Exiles” instead.

Notwithstanding some recent White House debates, Lady Liberty has largely remained true to her radically revolutionary Parisian parentage to this day.

The Sacred Heart of Liberty

Close your eyes and you can still see it clearly. Here’s why:

Recall first that the Lady Liberty’s conceptual French father, the abolitionist Édouarde Laboulaye, staked his own life and liberty on bringing down the hated French Second Empire under Emperor Napoleon III — whose reign ended suddenly and spectacularly in the worst military collapse in all of France’s long history. During the brief but still-legendary period of direct democracy which followed, popularly known as the Paris Commune of 1870–71, Paris declared itself a free and self-governing city. Later under a more moderate form of Republicanism, Laboulaye was elected to the French Assembly under the newly reconstituted Third French Republic.

Alas what this tepid little account leaves out is the epic bloodshed that brought the Paris Commune to its knees in 1871: resulting in the near-genocidal death of some thirty- to fifty-thousand Parisian “communards” who were hunted like dogs through the streets of Paris, with others executed en masse by firing squads amid the gravestones of Paris’s legendary Père Lachaise cemetery.

The most desperate of the remaining rebel survivors briefly took refuge deep inside the ancient gypsum mining tunnels that honeycombed the high rounded hill, known as the Butte Montmartre, located just outside the old walls of Paris — precisely where the white dome of Sacré-Couer looms today. Previously these heights were reserved for the cannons of the armies defending Paris. But now, sealed inside the tunnels to die like rats by their triumphant enemies, the doomed rebels silently starved, suffocated, or committed suicide, entombed in the dark underground heart of the Parisian countryside.

Among the ranks of many French radicals and free-thinkers ever since, their cause and their courage have never be forgotten.

Hence we should really not be so shocked — even though most of us are! — to learn that none other than Georges Clemenceau, later the heroic President of France throughout the catastrophic First World War, seriously campaigned to have a giant full-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty placed on top of Montmartre instead.

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The Statue of Liberty towering over Mortmartre in Paris (Harper’s Weekly Magazine January 1884)

Turns out that, prior to the Great War, Clemenceau had long served as radical working-class Montmartre’s delegate to the French National Assembly.

As historian David Harvey reports in his 2003 book Paris: Capital of Modernity,

On August 3, 1880, the matter came before the city council in the form of a proposal — a “colossal statue of Liberty will be placed on the summit of Montmartre, in front of the church of Sacré-Coeur, on land belonging to the city of Paris.” The French republicans at that time had adopted the United States as a model society, which functioned perfectly well without monarchism and other feudal trappings. As part of a campaign to drive home the point of this example, as well as to symbolize their own deep attachment to the principles of liberty, republicanism, and democracy, they were then raising funds to donate donate the Statue of Liberty that now stands in New York Harbor. Why not, said the authors of this proposition, efface the sight of the hated Sacré-Coeur by a monument of similar order?

In short, had Clemenceau and his French Republican allies had their way, we would now see a massive Statue of Liberty facing westward — signaling with her raised torch to her American sister on the far side of the Atlantic.

Instead, what we see in Liberty’s place is the pure white magnificent marble dome of the Basilica of the Sacré Couer — which conservative and Catholic constituencies deliberately designed to erase any trace of the buried and martyred Communards; and to “expiate the crimes of the Commune,” in the words of one French Bishop. In the words of another Bishop, the humiliating military defeat of France in 1870 itself was simply divine retribution for French political atheism.

George Clemenceau, by contrast, quite literally saw construction of the Basilica of Sacré- Couer as a deliberate attempt to desecrate the sacred civic ideals of the French Revolution. Hence as late as 1899 he was still struggling to have the foundations of the new Basilica torn down, and still hoping to raise a new Statue of Liberty on the heights of the Butte Montmartre, the highest geographic point in all of Paris.

Much to their credit, the Catholic leadership in Rome did eventually back down from their support for the radically conservative cult of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” in its original (highly reactionary) cultural incarnation. Instead, in the words of historian David Harvey again, “By 1899, a more reform-minded Pope dedicated the cult to the ideal of harmony among the races, social justice, and conciliation.”

Amen to that.

Born in 1841, Clemenceau himself would surely have recalled the year 1884, when Bartholdi’s newly-forged Statue of Liberty quite literally towered over the village of Montmartre for month — sanctifying in a more secular sense the bery same Parisian suberb where he had briefly served as Mayor during the turbulent years of the Paris Commune.

Close your eyes, drink enough wine, and you can still see Liberty’s Torch held high above Paris to this very day.

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