Pre-Civil War America was a place of oppression and animosity for people of color. Both Native Americans and African Americans alike were perceived as inferior, illiterate, and savage. Edmonia Lewis defied these stereotypes on so many levels. She was refined, intelligent, educated, and of an African American and Native American bloodline.
At the time of Edmonia’s birth (dated anywhere between 1840 and 1854) slavery was still legal in the United States. Her father was a free black of West Indian lineage and her mother she described as “a wild indian…born in Albany…of copper color and with straight black hair…who wandered with her people, whose habits she could not forget.” Her mother was a member of the Chippewa tribe and was rumored to be part African as well.
Around the age of 9 is when Edmonia’s life took a turn. Her parents died within a year of each other. The death of her primary caregivers left Edmonia and her older brother, Samuel, in the custody of their aunts and their mother’s tribe for the next 3 years.
Samuel, who was 12 years Edmonia’s senior, traveled west for the Gold Rush. He settled in Bozeman, Montana and made his living as a real estate investor and gold prospector. With his new wealth, Samuel paid for Edmonia to attend a local grammar school in New York. He later enrolled her in New York Central College, a Baptist abolitionist institution. Lewis rebelled while at NYCC, so she transferred to Oberlin College just outside of Cleveland. It was the first institution to admit women and African Americans.
During her time at Oberlin, Edmonia’s luck got worse. January of 1862 brought snow to the state of Ohio. Edmonia and two of her white classmates decided to seize the opportunity and go sleighing. Before their dash through the snow the ladies went to Edmonia’s place for a drink. Soon after, Edmonia’s classmates became sick and were rushed to a doctor. You already know what happens next. The doctor’s blame the ladies’ illness on poison. Although the two ladies recovered days later and the authorities took no action the townspeople took the law into their own hands. They kidnapped Edmonia, dragged her into an open field, and beat her. The beating was so severe that Edmonia was bedridden for weeks. The perpetrators were never caught and Edmonia never received justice.
The attack on Edmonia only compounded legal troubles onto her physical issues. The outrage in the town made authorities feel obligated to arrest her. She was charged with the poisoning of her classmates and was sent to trial. Throughout the triel Oberlin College defended their student. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin alumnus and the first African American admitted to the Ohio bar, defended Edmonia and “got her off” with no consequences.
Although she was supported by Oberlin throughout her legal troubles, Edmonia never graduated. There are rumors as to why her commencement never happened. One account says that Edmonia was denied enrollment for her final semester at Oberlin because she was accused of theft. As a result of her denial abolitionist Frederick Douglass got involved and advised her to move east. Another account claims that she voluntarily dropped out of college to pursue sculpting. Either way Edmonia left Oberlin and moved to Boston with her brother’s financial help. Once in Boston, Edmonia began to study with sculptor Edward A. Brackett. She also befriended abolitionists who included William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child.
Edmonia soon grew bored with being an apprentice and wanted to get to work on her own sculptures. Her brother rented studio space for her where she began her work. She even got a hand painted sign for the door that read “Edmonia Lewis, artist.”
Edmonia’s first big break came in 1864. She sculpted a bust of Robert Gould Shaw, who died while leading an all black regime in the battle of Fort Wagner. The sculpture was exhibited in the Soldier’s Relief Fair and copies of it were sold with an article Lydia Maris Child wrote in The Liberator. The income from her sculpture sales combined with some on Samuel’s money helped Edmonia get to Italy. She dreamed of working and studying there. Finally, her dream was becoming a reality.
Most of Edmonia’s adult career was spent in Rome. In Italy is where Edmonia learned to do marble sculptures. Her extensive training and new techniques made Edmonia’s work very popular. Soon, her work began to sell for large amounts. In 1873 the New Orleans Picayune reported Edmonia selling two pieces for $500,000 each.
A major milestone in Edmonia’s career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this exposition Edmonia sculpted a 3,015-pound marble sculpture of Cleopatra. The Death of Cleopatra portrays the Egyptian queen after she was bitten by her asp. Although many oohs and aahs eased from peoples lips as a result of the piece, it didn’t sell. She tried her luck again at the Chicago Interstate Exposition of 1878. Since the piece was not sold at either exposition, it was placed into storage. Oddly the statue was unaccounted for until turning up in a Chicago Saloon, then serving as a grave stone for a deceased racehorse named Cleopatra, and lastly rescued from a salvage yard by a fire inspector in 1988. In 1995 the sculpture was restored and placed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art. How a 5’4 statue goes missing for over a century I cannot explain.
The specifics of Edmonia’s death place and death date are still being debated. She was last seen in Rome in 1911. She never married and never had any children.
Cited Source: Richardson, Marilyn. “Edmonia Lewis” in Harvard Magazine. Vol. 88. March-April 1986, pp. 40-41.
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