The Statue of Liberty celebrates turns 125 today. While the “La Liberté éclairant le monde” (Liberty Enlightening the World) opened to the public in 1886, planning for it began in 1865 by French abolitionists and admirers of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. A broken chain lies at her feet.
Many Americans were reluctant to accept the gift. Supporters of the former Confederacy called the French offer an arrogant misunderstanding of American history. They mounted a successful campaign to associate the Statue with the American Revolution—plus the coming waves of immigrants to the U.S.—and not the Civil War.
During the Transatlantic slave trade, French voices to abolish slavery were muffled by investors who profited greatly. As French sugar plantations prospered in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and Reunion (Indian Ocean)—domestic ports at Nantes, Bordeaux, Rouen, Marseille and Saint-Malo profited, too.
18th century philosopher Denis Diderot challenged the slave system and exalted Afro-Roman playwright Terence Afer, a former slave as a global champion of human rights and the abolition of slavery, which France did not heed. France abolished slavery in 1794 but Napoleon re-instated it in 1802. It was completely abolished in 1848. In 1885, France and Great Britain took the lead in the Berlin Conference, which literally divided Africa among the European nations.
“Homo sum: humani nil a me aleinum puto.
I am a human being, nothing of human interest can be alien to me.”—Terence Afer
By: Christopher Moore, Curator and Special Projects Coordinator, Schomburg Center
The Image of the Black in Western Art