JULY 4, 1844


Lewis, born in Rensselaer, New York, of African-American and Mississauga Ojibwe heritage,* was raised by maternal aunts who lived near Niagara Falls and sold Ojibwe crafts. Lewis’ Ojibwe name meant “Wildfire.” Entering Oberlin College in 1862, she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis and began to study art. Accused (later tried for & acquitted) of poisoning 2 white students, she was beaten by a mob. Leaving Oberlin, she began sculpting in Boston in 1864. She was inspired by the great abolitionists and crafted a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, which the Shaw family purchased. Racism caused her to move to Rome where she became the 1st sculptor of either ethnicity to earn international fame.  Her more famous sculptures include: Forever Free; The Arrow Maker; and The Death of Cleopatra–for the 1876 Centennial Exposition. In 1896, Lewis moved to Paris before moving to London in 1901. She died there on September 17, 1907.

* Note: Sources differ on the specifics of her heritage: Some list her father as Afro-Haitian and mother as Mississauga Ojibwe-African; others, such as her half-brother, say her father was a “West Indian Frenchman” and mother was African-Narragansett.

 “Edmonia Lewis,” Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Retrieved 5/22/2020, https://americanart.si.edu/artist/edmonia-lewis-2914
“Edmonia Lewis,” Biography.  Retrieved 5/22/2020, https://www.biography.com/artist/edmonia-lewis
Photo: Henry Rocher (1824-1887), c. 1870.  Smithsonian Institute, National Portrait Gallery.  Public Domain.

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