The Persistence of Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis, Albumen print, c.1870 | PC: Wikimedia Commons

Edmonia Lewis, Albumen print, c.1870 | PC: Wikimedia Commons

Memento Artem


Black History Month highlights heroes who’ve shaped not only United States history, but the history of the world. Iconic figures from Nat Turner to former president Barack Obama have created lasting impacts on society. Their contributions have both made us take a hard look at racial injustices and come together as fellow human beings full of respect and companionship. One figure who has become more prevalent and recognized in history is Edmonia Lewis, one of the first African-American sculptors. 

Lewis’ life began with the cards stacked against her. She was born into a chaotic United States during the Civil War to a freed African-American slave father and an Ojibwe Native American mother. Unfortunately, the Lewis family didn’t have a happy ending and both of Lewis’s parents died before she was 5. Lewis, along with her older brother, were raised by their Ojibwe aunts until she was 12. Later, the siblings picked up and moved to California where her brother became a gold miner. 

Lewis’ brother was responsible for funding her education to the abolitionist Oberlin College in 1859. However, her college career was cut short and she was unable to enroll for her last semester when she was accused of theft and poisoning her two white roommates. She was tried for these accusations and was acquitted. 

In 1863, she moved to Boston and met amateur sculptor Edward Brackett, who gave her basic lessons in sculpture. This was extremely rare and bold for women of the time. Women were expected to pursue only the more delicate of art forms such as watercolor and embroidery. However, despite her limited training and exposure, Lewis began making medallion portraits of abolitionist figures of the time. 

In the summer of 1865, Lewis chose to continue pursuing her passion and further her skills in Europe. She traveled to London, Paris and Florence before settling in Rome where she learned Italian and rented a studio. There she met other ambitious American sculptors drawn to what Rome could offer. During this time she made sculptures of slaves newly freed from the slave trade as well as Native American subjects based off of her experiences in the United States. Then, after the abolishment of slavery in the United States, she began to create sculptures of religious subjects. However, what remains as one of her greatest masterpieces is “The Death of Cleopatra” (1876) which was created to celebrate the United States centennial. 

Despite her rough beginnings, Lewis didn’t give up on her dreams. She pressed on and made a name for herself. Her persistence led her to become both an American and artistic hero. 

Cameron Cizek is a senior studying computing.