After More Than 150 Years, Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Finally Gets Her Degree

A historian is fighting to honor the legacy of the 19th-century artist

Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis circa 1870, photographed by Henry Rocher National Portrait Gallery under CC0 1.0

Throughout her lifetime, Edmonia Lewis, born in 1844 to parents with Black and Native American ancestry, broke barriers to achieve widespread renown as a talented sculptor. One of those barriers: In 1859, she was among a handful of Black students to enroll in Oberlin College, one of the first institutions to admit Black students and women.

But a series of scandalous allegations ensured she would never graduate. After being accused of poisoning two classmates, she was beaten by a violent mob. While healing from her injuries, she was acquitted of these charges, only to face new accusations of stealing art supplies. In 1863, she left Oberlin without a degree.

Edmonia Lewis Stamp
The commemorative Edmonia Lewis stamp Courtesy of the United States Postal Service

Now, over 150 years later, Bobbie Reno, a town historian in East Greenbush, New York—where Lewis was born—has helped the sculptor officially graduate. In 2020, Reno wrote to the school advocating that Lewis receive an honorary degree, per the Times Union’s Kenneth C. Crowe II.

A school official wrote back: “[R]ather than award her an honorary degree, Oberlin College has instead decided to award Edmonia Lewis her diploma. She will be awarded a posthumous diploma of the Ladies’ Course at our upcoming 2022 Commencement Ceremony.”

The ceremony took place last month, and Reno was a speaker. Reno said that she could not speak for Lewis, so she would instead read a quote attributed to the artist:

“Sometimes the times were dark and the outlook was lonesome, but where there is a will, there is a way. I pitched in and dug at my work until now I am what I am. It was hard work though. But with color and sex against me, I have achieved success. That is what I tell my people whenever I meet them, that they must not be discouraged, but work ahead until the world is found to respect them for what they have accomplished.”

Even without her degree, Lewis won international acclaim for her work. After Oberlin, she moved to Boston, where she was trained by fellow sculptor Edward Brackett. But ultimately, she wanted to go to Rome and hone her knowledge of the neoclassical movement, per Mental Floss’ Jake Rossen.

The Death of Cleopatra
The Death of Cleopatra, carved in 1876 Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

“Italy had some of the finest marble quarries in the world, but it afforded something else, too: escape from the rigid categorization based on race and sex,” said Lizzie Peabody, of the Smithsonian podcast “Sidedoor,” in 2019.

Over more than four years in Rome, Lewis completed her most famous work, The Death of Cleopatra. This piece later had its own tumultuous journey, as Alice George wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2019. It depicts Cleopatra’s suicide; some were awed by the stark image, while others were repelled by it. But it never sold, according to “Sidedoor.

Lewis’ masterwork made a trip through the storage room of a shopping mall, a saloon, a golf course, a junkyard and a torpedo plant, all before being finding a home at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

While many of her works have been lost to time, Lewis is finally gaining recognition as an artistic pioneer. Reno has been at the forefront of the effort to give Lewis her due. Earlier this year, she successfully lobbied for Lewis to appear on a stamp, and now, she is glad to see Oberlin taking action to award the sculptor her diploma.

“Obviously, I’m happy with this,” Reno tells the Times Union. “What happened back then was wrong.”

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