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A 'fairy tale...'

Credit for the earliest effort to verify this alternative history goes to Barbara Mikkelson, half of the husband-and-wife team that maintains the Urban Legends Reference Pages, a popular and well-respected website dedicated to debunking contemporary folklore and Internet hoaxes.

The story is a "fairy tale," in Mikkelson's estimation. She found no evidence to support the contention that the Statue of Liberty was created as a tribute to black soldiers in the Civil War, nor that a black woman modeled for it. She cites the 1879 patent taken out by French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi in which he describes the proposed work simply as "a commemorative monument of the independence of the United States." Furthermore, Mikkelson observes, most sources agree that Bartholdi modeled Lady Liberty's features after those of his own wife and his mother, neither of whom was black.

She found more reasons to disbelieve upon examaning one of the "Documents of Proof" cited in the foregoing email text. The May 18, 1986 edition of the New York Times Magazine indeed contained coverage of the history (and the contemporary refurbishing) of the Statue of Liberty, but not one reference linking its origin to the Civil War, or to the emancipation of black slaves. In fact, it fully confirmed the traditional explanation.

A terra cotta model by Bartholdi "may have been designed after the likeness of a black woman."
It isn't known where the revisionist version of the history of Lady Liberty originated, but it has evidently been around for some time. Mikkelson notes that it was already being promulgated by Leonard Jeffries, chairman of New York City College's department of African-American studies, in 1991. She casts serious doubt on Jeffries' credibility based on other outlandish stands he has taken, such as his contention that the AIDS epidemic was created by "rich white folks" bent on decimating the black population of the United States.

Nevertheless, unplumbed mysteries remain that not only justify continued historical research, but hand rumormongers a morsel of ambiguity to cling to. According to ABC News, a 21-inch terra cotta model by Bartholdi "which may have been designed after the likeness of a black woman" does indeed stand next to a mock-up matching the actual finished statue in the Museum of the City of New York. Around its left hand dangles "what appears to be" a broken chain.

Also, historians confirm that French historian Edouard de Laboulaye, who originally proposed the monument, was a leader of the anti-slavery movement in his country. It is believed that Frederic Bartholdi himself had connections to the abolitionist movement, as well.

Mikkelson's argument that the role of black soldiers in the Civil War would not have been familiar to the general public at the time is cogent (indeed, their role is not widely known or appreciated

"Those who are looking for a report that will support the rumors in their entirety will also be disappointed."
today). However, it could have been common knowledge to those who participated in the abolitionist movement in both America and France. According to Richard Newman of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, it is widely believed among academics that Laboulaye did intend for the statue to commemorate freed slaves, as well as the Union victory in the Civil War.

Though we won't learn the results of the National Park Service investigation until this summer, it is already newsworthy due to the fact that February is Black History Month. Head researcher Rebecca Joseph won't disclose what she has found out so far, apart from this teaser issued to the press:

"Those people who are looking for a report that's going to support the most traditional interpretation of the Statue of Liberty are going to be disappointed," she says, but "those who are looking for a report that will support the rumors in their entirety will also be disappointed."

UPDATE: NPS Final Report on Black Statue of Liberty Rumor
Rebecca Joseph's summary report, released in September 2000, concludes that while it is "impossible to rule out" the possibility that Bartholdi's design models for the Statue of Liberty evolved from earlier sketches by the artist of black Egyptian women, there is "no corroborating evidence" that Bartholdi or his patron, Laboulaye, intended to depict Lady Liberty as a black woman. Similarly, while acknowledging that the Statue of Liberty would never have been built had its main advocates not been staunch abolitionists who saw the eradication of slavery as necessary to the realization of the principle of "liberty for all," the project was "not intended entirely as a monument to the end of slavery."  Read more...

Sources and further reading:

Snopes.com: Statue of Liberty
The skeptic's view presented by Barbara Mikkelson of the Urban Legends Reference Pages

Who Invented the Statue of Liberty?
From About.com's Inventors Guide, links to information about Frederic Auguste Bartholdi

History of the Statue of Liberty
Official version from the National Park Service

Final Report on Black Statue of Liberty Rumor
National Park Service, September 2000

Statue of Liberty's Origins Studied
Associated Press, 9 February 2000

Current Netlore
The Urban Legends Top 25

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