Famous Friday: Edmonia Lewis

Our country’s recent reckoning with race has ignited a great deal of interest in African American history. My family has been doing a lot of reading and recently began taking an online African American history course offered by Yale University. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to continue to learn more about the history of my ancestors on my father’s side. With that eye toward history, I decided to focus this week’s Famous Friday on an incredibly accomplished multiracial woman of history.

Edmonia Lewis was born a free woman on July 4, 1844 in Rensselaer, New York. She was of Mississauga Ojibwe, Haitian, and African descent. Tragically, by the age of 9, Lewis lost both of her parents and began living with her aunts. Lewis and her aunts made a living making and selling Ojibwe baskets, moccasins, and blouses.

Lewis went on to study at New-York Central College, an abolitionist college, and Oberlin College. Oberlin was one of the first colleges to accept women and people of color, but Lewis faced discrimination throughout her time at the college. After college, Edmonia Lewis moved to Boston and began her career as a sculptor. She made connections through William Lloyd Garrison, and eventually found a sculpting instructor to help kick start her career. Soon after, Lewis sold her first sculpture for $8, which was a nice sum in those days.

Lewis went on to become the first well-known professional African American and Native American sculptor and certainly the first well-known multiracial sculptor as well. She sculpted busts abolitionists like John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, along with many other notable figures including, Dr. Dio Lewis, and Hiawatha (pictured here).

Through her success in Boston, Lewis earned enough money to move to Rome, Italy where she spent the majority of her career. She connected with other successful artists and began sculpting with a more neoclassical style. Throughout her career, Lewis found great success and fame through her art. Little is known about the last years, of her life, other than her passing in 1907 in London, England. Since her passing, her work has received even greater notoriety, as it is now a part of permanent collections at Howard University, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Karson Baldwin, President Project RACE Teens

Photo credit: biography.com & Wikipedia.com