Edmonia Lewis artistThe fact that Edmonia Lewis was able to fulfill her destiny is astounding; that her works were ignored and lost—shameful.

Authorities are unclear on the exact details of her life because Lewis was known to tell stories about herself to win over the audiences she was addressing. They changed, particularly once she became internationally known.


Lewis, first named Wildfire, was born in 1844 in upstate New York to a Black father and a part Chippewa mother. Her father, a free person of color, worked as a gentleman’s servant. An artist in her own right, her mother made moccasins and other trinkets to sell to tourists visiting Niagara Falls.

By age ten, Lewis was orphaned and went to live with her maternal aunts. With the help of her half-brother Samuel who made a fortune during the California gold rush, she received an outstanding education. After graduation, she attended Oberlin College. The college, founded in 1833, championed abolition and education of whites, blacks, and women.

In the winter of 1862, she was accused of attempting to poison her fellow white classmate and roommate by putting Spanish Fly, an aphrodisiac, in their mulled wine before the women went on a sleigh ride with their beaus. A mob of white men kidnapped and beat her, leaving her to die in a field. She survived and was exonerated. Another accusation of stealing art supplies surfaced. She left before she could graduate.


After an introduction to the abolitionist community in Boston and a brief training stint with a local sculptor, Lewis opened her own studio. She soon became well-known for making portrait medallions and portrait busts of abolitionist heroes,

Racism and sexism eventually forced Lewis’s move to Italy, where she lived for twenty years, associating with a group of American women sculptors who felt freer and more accepted to work on their art there than in the U.S. During that time, Lewis produced some dazzling work.

The Death of Cleopatra by Edmonia LewisOne specific piece,  The Death of Cleopatra, her largest (almost 3,000 pounds) and most powerful work, took her more than four years to create. In 1876, she entered the piece in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where it was placed in the gallery for American artists and listed as “for sale.”

While some raved about the masterful work, others criticized it as being graphic and disturbing. According to the Smithsonian, “One artist, William J. Clark Jr. wrote in 1878 that ‘the effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellent—and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art.’”

Lewis disappeared from the public eye in the 1880s and not much is known about her later life. She died in London in 1907.


Many of her works did not survive. However, some of Lewis’s pieces can be found at the Howard University Gallery of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Her Cleopatra sculpture’s fate is rather sad. She later appeared in the Chicago Interstate Industrial Expo, became a centerpiece for a Chicago saloon, a tombstone for a racehorse owner and gambler’s well-loved horse (You guessed it—Cleopatra) buried at the racetrack. The track went from a golf course to a Navy munitions site, and finally to a bulk mail center. Some well-meaning Boy Scouts even gave her a fresh coat of paint to cover the graffiti she wore.

Her fate improved, however, after being rescued by a historical society, and then handed over to the Smithsonian.


Bias and hate have chased many talented people from our shores. Furthermore, those same forces today impede the progress of those who can enrich our lives and make our world a better place. If our country is to continue to be a shining force, we must strive to uplift all of our citizens, regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, age, or disability.

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