A Woman to Know: Emma Lazarus

Until we are all free, we are none of us free. — Emma Lazarus

Until we are all free, we are none of us free. — Emma Lazarus

(image via Library of Congress)

Emma was born in New York City. By 1860, still just a teenager, she was translating German poetry and writing verses of her own. Soon icons like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Browning became avid fans of her work. When she wasn’t writing, she worked on Ward’s Island as an advocate for Jewish immigrants detained by immigration officials.

In 1883, representatives from the Statue of Liberty committee asked Emma to help with their fundraising efforts. They wanted to raise money for a pedestal to elevate France’s grand gift. In 1883, Emma wrote a poem inspired by her work with the immigrants on Ward’s Island. “The New Colossus” published to great acclaim in The New York Times and The New York World. But just four years later, Emma died suddenly, possibly of undiagnosed Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In 1903, 17 years after Emma’s death, her friend Georgina found the once-forgotten poem and suggested it be engraved on the statue’s grand pedestal, as a tribute to Emma’s work with immigrants. Now, people read her words every day:

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!

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