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One On 1: The Statue Of Liberty

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1,” with a somewhat different idea this week: With the 4th of July holiday approaching, Budd goes one-on-one with the Statue of Liberty.

They come from around the world to see the magnificent lady up close - Lady Liberty. She's been standing in New York Harbor for 118 years. Imagine the stories she could tell.

So how do you go one-on-one with an inanimate object? Fortunately, the Statue of Liberty has something in common with so many prominent New Yorkers - a spokesman.

Barry Moreno is a National Parks Service historian, librarian, and author of "The Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia."

“There were so many arguments and discussions and claims made about the Statue of Liberty's background, and some of them seem to contravent each other and they sort of confuse the question, because there are so many myths and stories about the Statue of Liberty," Moreno says.

Let's start with the name. Her official name is actually Liberty Enlightening the World, but she's called Lady Liberty. No offense, but Moreno says the statue is no lady.

“They always said the Statue of Liberty was a lady, a figure of a woman. I found out that it wasn't exactly the case,” he says. “She really was the figure of a goddess, a Roman goddess called Libertoss, ancient Rome’s goddess of freedom. I discovered who this goddess was, and she was worshipped by freed slaves in ancient Rome."

“This is a sculpture bust of Edouard de Laboulaye who is the creator of the Statue of Liberty,” Moreno continues as he took NY1 on a tour of the statue. “He was a professor at a French school that was interested in America, American institutions, and he hired FrŽdŽric-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor, to design the Statue of Liberty. He told Bartholdi that it would have to be the goddess of liberty. Bartholdi is then the one who decided the statue of the goddess had to be a gigantic colossus. It had to be not just a small size statue, but a big one."

Reports at the time indicated that Americans were embarrassed about the size of the statue — 151 feet tall, with 16-foot hands and a 35-foot waist. In an 1876 editorial, the New York Times even called it “a useless gift.”

But several years later, when there was talk of the statue finding a home in Boston Harbor, the Times had some stinging words for the people in Boston: "This statue is dear to us·and no third-rate town is going to step in and take it from us."

Moreno says the statue was a family affair. A colleague of Bartholdi's was at the opera one night, saw Bartholdi's mother and thought she looked familiar.

“When he saw this old lady, he thought, ÎThis is the face of the Statue of Liberty!’” Moreno says. “And then Bartholdi said, ÎYes, she was my inspiration.’”

The inspiration for the statue was friendship.

"It was built to celebrate the freedom of America and also to underline the friendship that France and America had,” Moreno says. “Another thing I found out was there was a relationship to the Civil War. They were trying to build a monument that also recognized the end of slavery in the United States following the Civil War. Most people don't know about the broken shackle and chain at her feet. You really can’t see it from below, but there is a shackle which means the end of servitude and the freedom of the United States as an independent nation in 1776."

There is the history that Moreno has researched. Then there are the anecdotes he's collected in working on the island for more than 10 years.

“There's no prison [inside the statue]. Not anymore, but there used to be,” he says. “They used to lock unruly soldiers and sailors, that was it. So it was up until about 1937, then they closed it."

Today, people continue to come, from towns close to New York and far away.

"I want to see it with my own eyes and feel the freedom of America,” says one tourist. “This is symbol of freedom, so I want to see it.”

The Statue of Liberty came to represent immigrants' dreams of freedom and their hopes for the future. But they first had to confront the realities of Ellis Island, even before they got off the boat.

“Some immigrants didn't even see the Statue of Liberty at all, because they were down below packing their bags to make sure they could get off the ship and getting ready for Ellis Island,” Moreno says. “Remember, these people were frantic, some of them were confused, they were annoyed, and they were in a rush."

Once at Ellis Island, the immigrants faced some critical questions: Did they have their papers, any papers? Any family here? Could they work? Were they healthy?

“Being a doctor on line inspection was a hard job. You stood in line and immigrant after immigrant came before you, and immigrants used to be heavily clothed,” Moreno says. “They wore a lot of clothes, and sometimes it was a dodge or a trick to keep doctors from seeing whether they were lame or not or whether they were missing a finger. Immigrants who were also deportees were often disgusted with the United States and angry, and they didn't have such a pleasant reaction to seeing the statue waving good bye to them.”

After the medical exam, it was then up to the Great Hall or an interview that might determine the rest of your life.

“This was the key room to the history of Ellis Island,” Moreno says. “This is where interrogations took place, and this is where the decision was taken to accept or reject an alien."

Millions of immigrants would endure hardships in adjusting to life in the new world, hardships that began immediately.

“The immigrants were mixed up with all these nationalities,” Moreno says. “They had never seen someone from another country sometimes. They grew up in a village somewhere, so to see someone who was a gypsy or Greek or Armenian was quite an experience, so they thought Ellis Island was a bizarre place. The immigrants asked a million questions. They were always upset, frustrated, angry, crying. This was a place where there weren't many shadows and hidden things anymore. That's why immigrants often went away from this place with a feeling of disgust or unpleasantness or shame. They felt they were revealed at Ellis Island, they were humiliated at Ellis Island, they were insulted at Ellis Island.”

The flow of immigrants slowed in the mid 1920’s. But during World War II, people started arriving again, for a much different reason.

“Thousands of Germans, suspected Nazis and Fascist Italians were arrested by the FBI and brought to Ellis Island under orders of President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, and they were held here for hearings,” Moreno says.

The facility closed in 1954 and was virtually abandoned until President Lyndon Johnson made it part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965.

Years later, President Ronald Reagan created the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation to restore both monuments. The statue reopened in 1986 during an international celebration that lasted several days.

The museum at Ellis Island opened in 1990. The exhibits tell the complete story, from leaving the motherland to arriving in the new world - sometimes, as the cartoons suggest, to a not so friendly reception in New York.

Today, millions visit Ellis and Liberty islands each year, from many different places, and for many different reasons. The monuments are as meaningful now as they were to many of our ancestors a century ago.

“It represents freedom,” says one tourist. “Personally, every time I see the statue, it just gives me a chill because it's what this country stands for."

- Budd Mishkin

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