Little Known Black History Fact: Mary Edmonia Lewis

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  • Mary Edmonia Lewis is the first credited African American and Indian female sculptor in the U.S.  She was nicknamed “wildfire” by her mother’s Indian community, the Ojibwe. She would add the first name of Mary while attending Oberlin College, which is also the name that she signed on her sculptures. Just recently The Walters Art Museum announced the discovery of a rare photo of Mary E. Lewis.  The image is dated around 1874, when Lewis was in her early thirties. It is one of eight rare photos found of the early black sculptor.

    Mary E. Lewis fell on hard criticism and was accused of several crimes at Oberlin, including the theft of paintbrushes by her art teacher, and even the murder of two female students. The girls apparently drank bad wine that was served by Lewis. Although she was not convicted of either crime, the school revoked her chances of graduation.

    In 1863, Edmonia Lewis found friendship with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Through Garrison, she was introduced to Edward Brackett who mentored her in her craft. She would become one of the most famed artists in Boston. Her first creations were medallions with portraits of white anti-slavery leaders and heroes of the Civil War. The replicas from her 1865 bust of Black battalion leader, Robert Gould Shaw, earned her enough money to travel abroad and study in Rome. The bust is now owned by the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston.

    Using inspiration from the Emancipation Proclamation, Edmonia Lewis would make her masterpiece and best known sculpture called “Forever Free” in 1867. Then ten years later, the art world would praise her piece called “The Death of Cleopatra,” because it showed a strong, powerful Cleopatra after death, unlike other artists who made her look weak. The piece is held by the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.

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