American sculptor Edmonia Lewis is featured on a new United States Postal Service (USPS) stamp. The stamp debuted on January 26. It is the 45th installment of the USPS’s Black Heritage Series.
Lewis was a successful sculptor during the late 1800s. An Indigenous American, Black and Roman Catholic woman, Lewis faced racism and discrimination throughout her life. Nevertheless, she built a successful career as an artist living in Europe.
Lewis was born in rural upstate New York sometime in 1843 or 1845. Her mother was a skilled seamstress of mixed Ojibwa/Chippewa and Black American heritage. Her father was a Black American man who worked as a gentleman’s servant and might have been formerly enslaved. Orphaned at a young age, Lewis lived with her mother’s family for much of her childhood. Her brother, who made a living as a gold miner in California, paid for Lewis to attend Oberlin College in Ohio beginning in 1859.
Oberlin was known as a socially progressive school, yet Lewis was treated terribly. In 1862, she was wrongly accused of poisoning two of her white female classmates. A white mob kidnapped and badly beat Lewis. As she healed from her injuries, Lewis managed to clear her name and get the charges against her dropped. She left Oberlin shortly after and traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, to pursue sculpture.
The Death Of Cleopatra Inspired Strong Praise
Lewis’s first big break came in 1864 when she sculpted a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw. He was the white military commander of the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The Regiment is famous for its heroic and skillful fighting during the Civil War. Lewis sold enough copies of this work to pay for a move to Europe. There, she traveled and eventually set up a successful sculpture studio in Rome, Italy.
Lewis learned Italian and quickly became a well-known figure within Rome’s artistic community. She stood out from her fellow sculptors because she rarely employed assistants in her studio. Instead, she preferred to carve her fine marble artworks all on her own.
Lewis spent four years in Rome working on her best-known sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which she finished in 1876. The piece weighed over 3,000 pounds. She shipped it to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The work inspired both strong praise and some criticism for the way its subject was shown.
Lewis also produced several sculptures inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha.”Other works of hers include Forever Free (Morning of Liberty)(1867). This piece shows a standing Black man and a kneeling Black woman rejoicing at the moment of their emancipation from enslavement.
“She Deserves Her Stamp”
Lewis’s work touched on Black American themes, including the celebration of newly won freedoms, the USPS said in its statement announcing the release of the new stamp. She also “sensitively depicted her Indigenous American heritage as peaceful and dignified,” the USPS wrote.
Historian Bobbie Reno has done research on the artist. She participated in a years-long effort to get Lewis’s portrait on a USPS stamp. She also raised funds to restore the sculptor’s gravesite in London, England, where Lewis was buried after her death in 1907.
“[Lewis] identified first as a Native American. Later she identified more as an African American. She was in two worlds. She deserves her stamp,” Reno said.
Educator and esteemed public figure Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was the first Black person to appear on a USPS stamp, in 1940. Washington’s stamp came about thanks to a long campaign by Black public figures. These figures included Richard Robert Wright Sr., a Philadelphia businessman who wrote scores of letters to President Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1933. The Black American newspaper, The Chicago Defender,also ran numerous articles calling for the inclusion of famous Black Americans on postage stamps. “There should be stamps bearing black faces,” the newspaper wrote in one 1930 editorial.
By 1940, women had only appeared on stamps eight times. Abolitionist activist Harriet Tubman became the first Black American woman to appear on a USPS stamp in 1978, as well as the first person featured in the Black Heritage Series.