167 years ago today, on July 22 in 1849, famed American poet Emma Lazarus was born in New York City to a wealthy sugar refining family of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent. A writer from an early age, she went on to become part of the late nineteenth century New York literary elite, and at age 34 penned the inspiring sonnet that would give the Statue of Liberty, one of the most recognized women in the world, her powerful voice.
In 1883, William Maxwell Evarts, a senior statesman and lawyer who served as chairman of the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, and author Constance Cary Harrison asked Emma to compose a sonnet for an art and literary auction being held to raise funds for the construction of the Statue’s pedestal.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Inspired by her own Sephardic Jewish heritage, her experiences working with Jewish refugees from Russia on Ward’s Island, and the plight of the immigrant, Emma wrote “The New Colossus” on November 2, 1883 and donated it to the auction.
Emma’s sonnet didn’t receive much initial attention, playing no role at the dedication of the statue on October 28, 1886, and was soon forgotten. One year later, she died (November 19, 1887) from cancer, likely Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In 1901, 14 years after Emma’s death, her friend Georgina Schuyler found a book containing the sonnet in a bookshop and organized a civic effort to resurrect the lost work. Georgina’s efforts paid off and in 1903, Emma’s sonnet was inscribed on a plaque and placed on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
It remains there today, a universal symbol of hope, immigration and opportunity.
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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
*The “air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame” refers to New York City and Brooklyn, not yet consolidated into one unit in 1898.