After the Civil War, it took decades before freed slaves actually received even a little of the freedoms and privileges white people did. Even in the North, prejudices abounded. Edmonia Lewis was born into this world not only as an African-American, but a Native American, too. After a rough start in life, she would become a very sought-after sculptor.
Edmonia’s mother was from the Chippewa tribe while her father was a free African-American. Both of them were dead by the time Edmonia was five. She lived with her mother’s tribe with the name “Wildfire” until she turned twelve. Sunrise, her older brother, helped pay for her early schooling. In 1859, she took the name “Edmonia” and went to Oberlin College.
Oberlin was the first college to accept black women, but that didn’t mean the environment was friendly. All seemed to be well, until the winter of 1862. Two of Edmonia’s roommates became ill and the rumor was they had been poisoned. The facts were foggy, but that didn’t stop people from drawing conclusions. While walking home alone, Edmonia was attacked and left for dead in a field. She was then arrested and put on trial for attempted murder. The only practicing African-American lawyer in Oberlin represented her. She was acquitted and returned to school. However, a year later, she was accused of stealing art supplies and again acquitted. Barred from registering for her last term, Edmonia was forced to leave Oberlin.
Unable to graduate, Edmonia moved to Boston with her brother’s help. She met a portrait sculptor and began training. She created medallion portraits of abolitionists and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white leader of the all-black 54th Regiment. Shaw’s family bought the original work, while Edmonia made plaster copies she sold for $15. She sold enough to pay her way to Europe. After visiting London, Paris, and Florence, Edmonia rented a studio in Rome.
Unlike most sculptors of the time, Edmonia did all of her work herself. She valued her original touch and also simply didn’t want to pay other artists. She adopted the popular neoclassical style, but retained the themes of slavery and freedom. Because Rome and Europe as a whole wasn’t as racist against black artists, Edmonia’s work sold for high prices. It seemed like her legacy as the first black sculptor was secure.
For the 1876 Centennial Expo in Philadelphia, Edmonia created perhaps her most astounding work. “The Death of Cleopatra” weighs over 3,000 pounds. However, no one bought it. It moved to the Chicago Interstate Expo and was then bought by “Blind John” Condon, a gambler, who used the marble statue as a grave marker for his racehorse. It remained there for almost a century.
The statue’s next home was a storage yard, where it endured damage and was painted. A dentist then took it and put it in private storage. It may have stayed there, unseen, if not for Marilyn Richardson. The curator and scholar was writing a book on Edmonia and wanted to find her lost masterpiece. The Forest Park Historical Society was able to get the statue and donate it to the Smithsonian. It cost $30,000 to restore the work.
While Edmonia Lewis should have been remembered, records of her fade shortly after 1876. No one knew when she died or where she was buried. Richardson continued her research and found a 1901 census record of Edmonia moving to London. That allowed Richardson to track down Edmonia’s will and burial records, revealing the sculptor had died in England in 1907. It also identified where she was buried: St. Mary’s Cemetery. Her grave was unmarked.
Now, thanks to Richardson, other historians, and a GoFundMe, the grave is marked with black marble. It reads simply: “Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor, 1844-1907.”
Actress Anna May Wong was another artist born into a time fraught with racism and prejudice.