American sculptor Edmonia Lewis will feature on a new United States Postal Service (USPS) stamp set to debut January 26. The stamp is the 45th installment of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, according to a press release.
A Native American, Black and Roman Catholic woman, Lewis endured racism and prejudice in her life but nevertheless forged a successful career as an expatriate artist living in Europe. She was born in rural upstate New York sometime in 1843 or 1845 to her mother, a skilled seamstress of mixed Ojibwa/Chippewa and African American descent, and her father, an African 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, reports Kenneth C. Crowe II for the Times Union. Her brother, who made a living as a gold miner in California, paid for Lewis to attend Oberlin College in Ohio beginning in 1859.
Despite Oberlin’s reputation as a socially progressive school, in 1862, Lewis was wrongly accused of poisoning two of her white female peers. A white mob kidnapped and badly beat Lewis that winter. As she recovered from her injuries, Lewis managed to win an acquittal that cleared her name. She left Oberlin shortly after the attack and traveled to Boston to pursue sculpture, as Alice George reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2019.
Lewis’ first big break arrived in 1864, when she sculpted a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, the white military leader who commanded the Black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War. She sold enough copies of this work to finance a move to Europe, where she traveled widely and eventually established a successful sculpture studio in Rome, Italy.
Lewis learned Italian and quickly became a fixture in the flourishing community of expatriate artists living in Rome, befriending actress Charlotte Cushman and the sculptor Harriet Hosmer. According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Lewis stood out from her peers in that she rarely employed Italian assistants in her studio, preferring to carve fine marble artworks on her own.
The artist spent four years in Rome working on her best-known sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which she finished in 1876. She shipped the more than 3,000-pound sculpture to Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Exposition, where the work inspired both fervent praise and criticism for its unusually realistic portrayal of Cleopatra’s suicide, per the SAAM.
Other works by the artist include several sculptures inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem "The Song of Hiawatha" and Forever Free (Morning of Liberty) (1867), which depicts a standing Black man and a kneeling Black woman rejoicing at the moment of their emancipation.
“In addition to portrait busts of prominent people, Lewis’s work incorporated African American themes, including the celebration of newly won freedoms, and sensitively depicted her Native American heritage as peaceful and dignified,” adds the USPS in the statement.
In 1988, art historian Marilyn Richardson rediscovered the sculpture after more than a century in the cramped storeroom of a suburban Illinois shopping mall. (Those interested to learn more about the sculpture’s unlikely journey can listen to this episode of Sidedoor, a Smithsonian Institution podcast hosted by Lizzie Peabody.)
Bobbie Reno, the town historian of East Greenbush, New York, a town near Lewis’ birthplace, has conducted research on the artist and participated in a years-long lobby to land Lewis’ portrait on a USPS stamp. She also raised funds to restore the sculptor’s gravesite in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in the London borough of Brent, where Lewis was buried after her death in 1907, reports the Times Union.
“[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 tells the Times Union.
Esteemed public figure and educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) made history as the first Black person to appear on two USPS stamps in 1940, reported Erin Blakemore for Smithsonian magazine in 2016. As public historian Sheila A. Brennan writes in Stamping American Memory, Washington’s stamp portrait came about thanks to a long campaign by Black public figures. These advocates included Richard Robert Wright, Sr., a Philadelphia businessman who wrote scores of letters to President Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1933. African American newspaper The Chicago Defender also ran numerous articles advocating for the inclusion of famous Black Americans on postage stamps. “There should be stamps bearing black faces,” the newspaper wrote in one 1930 editorial. “A race that within 60 years can produce a Frederick Douglass or a Booker T. Washington certainly has contributed enough to American progress to earn this mark of respect.”
By 1940, women had only appeared on stamps eight times. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman became the first African American woman to appear on a USPS stamp in 1978, as well as becoming the inaugural figure featured in the institution’s Black Heritage series.