“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Poet Emma Lazarus wrote these famous words as part of a sonnet for an auction.

Emma wrote poetry and translated poems from German and French into English as a girl. Her father, recognizing her talent, published her first book of poems, Poems and translations by Emma Lazarus, written between the ages of Fourteen and Seventeen.

Emma met and then wrote to one of America’s best known poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson, when she was nineteen. She and Emerson worked together as student and mentor. Emma continued to write and publish books of poetry.

Emma also dedicated herself to helping Russian Jewish refugees escaping persecution in their homeland. The refugees lived in poor conditions on Ward’s Island in New York Harbor. Emma brought them clothing and food, set up English classes, and a trade school. She wrote about their plight hoping they would be accepted into American society.

In 1883,  a committee invited Emma to participate in a fundraising campaign to provide a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The committee asked her to write a sonnet to be auctioned to help raise money for the pedestal.

The statue, a gift from France, sat disassembled in crates on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor. The people of France paid for the statue. Now Americans raised money to pay for the pedestal to support it. But an economic depression made fundraising difficult.

At first, Emma declined the invitation to write a sonnet. Not only was the auction a week away, but as she told a pedestal committee member, Ms. Harrison, “A poem written to order would be flat.” Ms. Harrison asked Emma to think about the Russian Jewish refugees she had been helping. They could inspire her poem.

Emma thought it over. It seemed to her that the statue would light the way for newcomers entering New York Harbor. The¬†Statue of Liberty would welcome them to their new home. She decided to write the poem and called it “The New Colossus.”

Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of The New York World, asked people around the country to contribute money to build the pedestal. To help with the cause, he published Emma’s poem in his newspaper.

Pulitzer raised over $100,000. Most of the contributions were less than $1.00. The pedestal was built and the statue reassembled. President Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty on October 28, 1886.

In 1903, words from Emma’s “The New Colossus” were inscribed on a plague placed in the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Unfortunately, Emma died in 1887. She never knew that her words, inspired by refugees, welcomed generations of new immigrants seeking freedom in America.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Books For Kids:

The Story of Emma Lazarus: Liberty’s Voice

By Erica Silverman, Illustrated by Stacey Schuett

Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty

By Linda Glaser, Illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

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