published Friday, October 28th, 2011

Celebrating the Statue of Liberty

One hundred twenty-five years ago today a crowd of dignitaries -- all but two, some records indicate, were men -- gathered on an island in New York City's harbor to dedicate a statue sculpted by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi to celebrate France's friendship to the people of the United States. The statue was called "Liberty Enlightening the World." That somewhat cumbersome name didn't last long. The statue quickly came to be called, simply and elegantly, the Statue of Liberty. It has since become the most enduring symbol of the United States as well as a symbol of freedom for people around the globe.

At 125, Lady Liberty, as she also is known, remains an operative part of the nation's history. Celebrations today commemorate both the past and present roles of the statue. There will be speeches and presentations reminiscent of the oratory and gift exchanges in 1886. And in keeping with the statue's role as a symbol for immigrants, today's event will include the naturalization of 125 new citizens. The National Park Service, which oversees the statue and the island on which it sits, will oversee the events, which will conclude with a massive display of fireworks.

Those fireworks recall a rich history. The statue was not initially popular. It was supposed to be dedicated on July 4, 1876, to commemorate the country's centennial. Conceived as a gift, the completion of the statue and its pedestal ultimately depended on U.S. funds. A newspaper campaign and pennies collected by school kids eventually made erection of the statue possible. A parade commemorating the event passed down Wall Street where onlookers threw market tickers at the celebrants. It was, historians say, the first of what we now call ticker-tape parades.

Today, the statue and the nearby Ellis Island immigration center are among the most visited historic sites in the United States. Why not? It has been estimated that nearly half of all Americans today can trace their family history to at least one person who passed through the Port of New York at Ellis Island. And in almost every one of those instances, those on the way to Ellis Island passed and therefore had the opportunity to glimpse the Statue of Liberty. No wonder it has become a powerful symbol in a nation built, for the most part, by immigrants.

Not so long ago, many U.S. schoolchildren were required to memorize the words of Emma Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..." along with the history of the statue. That's not often the case in the contemporary curriculum, but perhaps it should be.

There is, to be sure, much to study, learn and appreciate in the United States' rich history. Even so, the Statue of Liberty and what it has come to mean continue to occupy a special place in that timeline. Today's quasquicentennial event is an appropriate reminder of that fact.

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