Today in labor history: Emma Lazarus born in 1849

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ….” Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote “The New Colossus,” containing these lines welcoming immigrants to the United States, was born July 22, 1849.

Lazarus was born in New York City in a wealthy family of Sephardic Jews – descendants of people expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in the 15th century. That gave her a lifelong sympathy for the persecution of Jews and for those fleeing oppression. She became a prominent poet on the American scene, one of the few women, and probably the only Jew, to do so. She had a lifelong correspondence with Ralph Waldo Emerson and was an admirer of social reformer Henry George. She was an early Jewish nationalist – advocating for a Jewish state in Palestine as early as the 1880s.

As refugees from oppression in czarist Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe began pouring into the U.S. in the latter part of the 19th century, Lazarus became involved in helping them. She worked as an aide for Jewish immigrants who had been detained by New York immigration officials. She helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York to provide vocational training to help destitute Jewish immigrants become self-supporting. She was deeply moved by the plight of the immigrant Jews she met in this work, and these experiences influenced her writing.

One of her poems, “The Dance to Death,” celebrated the courage and faith of the Jews who were burned to death in Nordhausen, Germany, during the Black Death, for allegedly causing the plague.

In 1883, Lazarus was asked to compose a sonnet for the “Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty” – an art and literary auction organized to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal. Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883, at age 34. After the auction, the sonnet appeared in Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World as well as The New York Times, but then disappeared from view. She died just five years later, on Nov. 19, 1987, from cancer.

After her death, when a patron of the arts, Georgina Schuyler, found the poem in a small booklet of the poems written to raise money for the construction of the pedestal. She was struck by the poem and organized a campaign to have it become a permanent part of the statue. In 1903, words from the sonnet were inscribed on a plaque and placed on the inner wall of the pedestal. By 1945, the engraved poem was relocated – including all 14 lines – to be placed over the Statue of Liberty’s main entrance.

Today, the plaque is on display in the Statue of Liberty Exhibit in the statue’s pedestal.

Lazarus is buried in Beth-Olom Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“The New Colossus”

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 world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities 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!

– Emma Lazarus, 1883

Photo: Emma Lazarus. Wikipedia (CC)


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