Saturday, August 15, 2009

Edmonia Lewis (1844-1911?)

Edmonia Lewis was born in about 1844 of African (West Indies) and Chippewa heritage. An 1880 newspaper article states that she spent her first 14 years wandering the wilderness with her mothers Chippewa tribe until her brother was able to send her to school. She attended Oberlin College, the first coeducational and interracial college in the United States. However, other articles give a very different light to her childhood, showing that she was born to a financially stable and highly intelligent father, a historian, Robert Benjamin Lewis - author of "Light and Truth". However, the 1850 census suggests that this was NOT her father, as she is clearly not listed with the rest of his family, whom had lived in Maine for several years.

She later moved to Boston and began lessons with Anne Whitney and went on to produce portraits of John Brown, Garrison and other abolitionists, as well as a bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She relocated to Rome in 1865 after selling one hundred plaster copies of her portrait bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw. There she met Charlotte Cushman and her lover Harriet Hosmer as well as other feminists in their artistic lesbian circle.

At least one passenger record shows her returning to the United States on July 1, 1875 aboard the S.S. "Ville de Paris". She took a second class cabin, possibly with three other women. She listed her occupation as "sculptor". The manifest does not show who stayed in what room, but three single women were listed immediately after her. They were Miss Margaret States, dressmaker, age 24 and twin sisters Angelique and Ernestine Ebel, both 18 with no occupations. All three of the women were from Alsace, France and might not have known Edmonia.

Her work in the United States, however, did not end. That same year she completed a bust of General Grant who went to Rome to specifically sit for her. In 1880 she presented a work called "Bride of Spring" at a Roman Catholic fair in Cincinnati; at the 1893 World's Fair she presented a sculptor of the poet Phillis Wheatley and at the 1895 World's Fair in Chicago she presented a sculptor of Charles Sumner.

Edmonia Lewis was the first African American sculptor to be recognized internationally.


New York Herald (New York) - November 22, 1869

Edmonia Lewis, the colored Boston sculptress, is going to Rome.

St. Joseph Herald (St. Joseph, Michigan) - January 22, 1870

Among the sculptors now in Rome are seven American women, Miss Whitney, Miss Mosmer, Miss Freeman, Miss Stebbins, Miss Edmonia Lewis, Miss Vinnie Ream, and Miss Foley.

Daily Gazette (Davenport, Iowa) - October 12, 1872

Edmonia Lewis is very busy at her studio in Rome. She is engaged upon a statue of Abraham Lincoln for Central Park, John Brown for the Union League Club, and the poet Longfellow for Yale College.

The Bath Times - September 1873

The Bath Times states that Miss Edmonia Lewis, the half Indian half negro sculptor, is a daughter of Robert B. Lewis, formerly of this city. Most of our older citizens will remember "Bob Lewis," as he was familiarly called, the famous colored historian of the colored race, who wrote and published a book here under the title of 'Light and Truth,' in which he maintained that black was the original color of the race, and that white men were of inferior stock, and not be regarded of much account anyway. "Bob" was great on ancient history, and in the naming of his children his peculiar taste for the "classical" was prominently apparent. He could call over the roll - "Euclid", "Edmonia", "Euphrosie," "Artemecia," "Hypatia," and each plump descendant of the "once ruling race of the world" would come to the front with dignity and alacrity, and answer to the summons of the "paternal head." He used to wear his long, black, Indiany hair in ringlets, profusely greased with his "immitable hair oil," an article of his own manufacture, and from the sale of which he seemed to derive quite an income. At one time he proposed to go out as a missionary to Africa, and we believe the South Congregational church in this city rendered him some aid in the way of obtaining an education for the foreign work. He never carried out his purpose, but after remaining here for many years finally moved to Bath, where he died several years ago, leaving a family of children of more than ordinary intelligence and ability.

The Globe (Atchison, Kansas) - October 8, 1878

The mother of Miss Edmonia Lewis, the sculptor, was an Indian; her father was a negro. She is dark, short and young. At Chicago, where she is exhibiting her work, she is constantly insulted by boors because of her color. In Rome she received the blessing of Pius IX, who was kind to her. Lord Bute purchased her "Madonna" for $3,000; Lady Ashburton has "The Old Arrowmaker and Daughter," and Lady Orphan has "Hiawatha's Marriage". St. James' Church, of Chicago, has ordered from her a Madonna and child, and a St. Joseph, and she is to chisel a Madonna for an Episcopalian church in Baltimore.

Mountain Democrat (Placerville, California) - January 4, 1879

Miss Edmonia Lewis, the colored sculptor, has finished a bust of General Grant, who sat for it in Rome last winter. Miss Lewis thinks he will be the next President, and adds that she doesn't know who is any better fitted for the position.

Burlington Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa) - January 25, 1879

Why Miss Edmonia Lewis, the Colored Sculptor, Returns to Rome

Not forty years ago, in an extremely humble cottage in Greenbrush, near Albany, lived a little girl, Miss Edmonia Lewis, who, physically and mentally, united many of the traits of two races - the Indian and the negro. Miss Lewis speaks very frankly and unaffectedly of her early struggles and privations. Although a fluent talker when the theme is such as to arouse her enthusiasm, she has something of the habitual quietude and stoicism of the Indian race. In person she is rather below the medium stature, and strong and supple, rather than delicately made. She bends slightly forward in speaking, pronounces slowly and deliberately, and has a trace of the sadness of both races in her manner, notwithstanding her assured artistic success.

Years ago, when going to Boston meant something, a little girl, rather outstandishly dressed, appeared in the streets of that city one afternoon. The brown little thing paused in front of the state house, and gazed long and silently at one of Story's masterpieces. From that day the passion of art and the resolve to execute something like that took possession of the girl. She went home devoted to a life purpose that rendered her ears deaf to that taunts of her schoolmates and the cuffs of the village schoolmaster. A few years later Miss Lewis came to New York, and found a sympathizing listener in Rev. Highland Garnet, the friend and admirer of the heroic John Brown. The old man, so far from discouraging the little creature, who waited upon his verdict with anxious eyes, put his hand upon his head and answered, "God bless you my little one; it is better to fail grandly than to succed in a little way!" But the Shiloh congregation was poor, and no millionaire came forward to send the colored aspirant to Rome. Next, armed with letters of introduction she called on William Lloyd Garrison, the veteran abolitionist. The old man, with the placid, but keenly critical face, shook his gray head and doubted. The little girl asked for some clay and modeled a baby's foot for him, dimples and all. "Good, little one," he said, surveying the work critically; "there is an artist in you, and I'll help to bring it out." But the art world, the patrons, still held aloof.

I was practically drive to Rome," said Miss Lewis, "in order to obtain the opportunities for art-culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor." With the little money she could raise, Miss Lewis set out for Rome, where at last she found herself in a real republic. Miss Hosmer became her fast friend and defender and the American colony at Rome, having left their race prejudices at home, received her kindly. Her origin only seem to give emphasis to her phenomenal powers. Victor Emanuel, the marquis of Bute, sovereigns and nobility, vied with each other in doing her honor. She has executed several busts of John Brown and of other celebrities for European customers, and has been received as an honored guest in the first circles. All this time she was cogitating her first great ideal work - "Dying Cleopatra" - a work that in some sense typified the attitude of both the races she represents. But John Brown is her hero, although she never saw the rugged old man, and has worked wholly from photographs in the several busts she has produced. She tells the story of the reception of her work at Philadelphia with curious frankness. She was lingering about within earshot of the committee room when it was brought in and opened. She had seen, with trembling for the fate of hers, work after work rejected by the committee. At length they box containing the "Dying Cleopatra" was brought in and opened. "I scarcly breathed," she said. "I felt as though I was nothing. They opened the box, looked at the work, talked together a moment, and then I heard the order given to place it in such a position." The Indian stoicism gave way. Miss Lewis swallowed her sobs for the moment, and went home and had a good cry all by herself. Miss Lewis makes no secret of the reason of her return to Rome, which she has adopted as her home. "They treat me very kindly here." she said, "but it is with a kind of reservation. I like to see the opera, and I don't like to be pointed out as a negress. She sailed last Saturday.

Mountain Democrat (Placerville, California) - April 12, 1879

Miss Edmonia Lewis, the colored sculptress, is now in Indianapolis, Ind., visiting a friend. Her father was a negro, her mother a Chippewa Indian, and from the latter she says she inherits her spirit, industry and perseverance.

Daily Miner (Butte, Montana) - September 25, 1879

Edmonia Lewis, the colored sculptress, is now in New York exhibiting her "Veiled Bride of Spring".

Mountain Democrat (Placerville, Cal.) - October 18, 1879

Edmonia Lewis, the colored sculptress, is now in New York exhibiting her "Veiled Bride of Spring".

Helena Independent (Helena, Montana) - March 25, 1883

Miss Edmonia Lewis, the sculptress, sister of Samuel Lewis, of Bozeman, has completed, at her studio in Rome, a fine bas-relief in white marble, representing the Magi adoring the infant Jesus, for a church in Baltimore. Miss Lewis has also recently finished a statue of the Virgin Mary for the Marquis of Bute.

Decatur Daily Republican (Decatur, Illinois) - May 2, 1887

Edmonia Lewis, the sculptor, is colored. Overcoming the prejudice against her sex and color, and self-educated, Miss Lewis is now successfully pursuing her profession in Italy.

Daily Advocate (Newark, Ohio) - April 17, 1893

A statue of Phillis Wheatley, the early Massachusetts colored poet, will be on exhibition at the World's Fair. The statue is the work of Miss Edmonia Lewis the colored sculptor.

Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana) - March 2, 2002

Samuel W. Lewis was one of Bozeman's earliest settlers. When he died in 1896, he also was among its most respected and loved residents. Lewis was born in Haiti in 1835 and came with his parents to the United States as a child. After his mother died, his father remarried a Chippewa woman who bore Lewis' half-sister, Edmonia. After his father died when Lewis was 12, the boy became a barber.

In 1852, he left for California and opened a barber shop in San Francisco. He moved on to the gold fields, where he did some mining and barbering, making enough money to travel to Europe. He returned to the American West, eventually working in Idaho and then mining camps in Montana. He displayed and entrepreneur's spirit that even several financial setbacks couldn't dim. Lewis lost $5,000 in gold when two San Francisco firms failed and two buildings that he had constructed in Idaho burned.

He came to Bozeman in 1868, when the fledgling town was only 4 years old. As he had done in other towns, he set up his barbering business along Main Street and became part of the town's commercial life. Starting in 1874, his name begins to appear in the local newspaper, The Avant-Courier. Several references described him renovating, expanding and painting his "apple-pie order" barbershop business. By 1883, he finished construction of his own home on South Bozeman Avenue. Lewis also built four rental homes, including two that still stand today on South Tracy.

Blacks made up less than 1 percent of the population in territorial Montana, according to a paper written in 1978 by Marilyn McMillan of Bozeman. Lewis was one of only 10 black in Bozeman during that time. In 1884, Lewis married Melissa Bruce, a widow with six children. The couple have one son, Samuel E. Lewis. Samuel Lewis died at the age of 63 on March 28, 1896 after a short illness. The Avant-Courier's lengthy obituary paid tribute to Lewis as a "firm friend, an enterprising, public spirited citizen, a pleasant neighbor, a king husband and affectionate father." The funeral was in his home, and his pallbearers included Bozeman's mayor. Lewis was buried at Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman in a grave still marked today by a obelisk monument. Melissa Lewis died in April 1927 from flu and was buried in the family plot.


Bath, Lincoln, Maine - August 26, 1850
1850 United States Federal Census
[Robert Benjamin Lewis was, according to the Bath newspaper, the father of Edmonia. However, she should be six years old and present in this record but she is not. I think the newspaper remember that this family had children with classic names and made the connection without checking. Further research will be needed to see for sure.]

Robert B. Lewis - mm 52 - whitewasher - b Maine
Mary F. Lewis - fm 33 - born Maine
Mary A. Lewis - fm 14 - born Maine
Benjamin H. Lewis - mm 12 - born Maine
Rachel Z. Lewis - fm 10 - born Maine
Ann C Lewis - fm 9 - born Maine
Artemisa D. Lewis - fm 7 - born Maine
Hypatia Lewis - fm 5 - born Maine
Eucled Lewis - mm 4 - born Maine
Henary C Lewis -mm 2 - born Maine
Europa V. Lewis - fm 6 months - born Maine

Passport Application - August 22, 1865
[italics were hand written]

I, M. Edmonia Lewis of Boston in the State of Mass do solemly swear that I am a native and loyal Citizen of the United States of America, and about to travel abroad. That I was born in Greenbrush, New York in or about the 4th of July 1844.
[signed] M. Edmonia Lewis.

Residence: Boston
Age: 20
Stature: 4 feet
Forehead: high
Eyes: black
nose: small
mouth: medium
chin: small
hair: Black
complexion: Black
Face: oval

Notes: "Passport to be sent to George F. Baker, New York". [written along the side] "M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talent as a sculptor."

8th Ward, 10th Dist, New York, New York - June 24, 1870
1870 United States Federal Census
[mm=mulatto male, mf=mulatto female]

Hankerson, Ben - wm 52 - Porter - prop. $1,000 - b NY
Hankerson, Nancy - mf 54 - Keeping House - born NY
Hankerson, Alfred - mm 14 - born NY
Miller, Chas - mm 36 - Doctor - property $500 - b NY
William, Walter - mm 30 - Drugist - prop. $500 - b NY
William, Eugene - mm 28 - Dentist - born NY
William, George - mm 26 - Seaman - prop. $500 - b NY
William, Mary - fm 22 - born NY
Keath, George - mm 28 - Waiter - b Philadelphia
Keath, Susan - fm 24 - Hair Dresser - b Philadelphia
Crosby, Ed - mm 18 - real estate $20,000 - b NY
Lewis, Edmond - fm 24 - Scupltress - prop $20,000 - b NY

Bozeman, Gallatin, Montana - July 11, 1870
1870 United States Federal Census

Williams, Lizzie - mulatto female age 33, Keeps Restaurant, b KY
Lewis, Samuel - mulatto male age 37, barber, born Bermuda

Bozeman, Gallatin, Montana - June 3, 1880
1880 United States Federal Census
[An 1883 newspaper in Helena said that this man was Edmonia's brother - this seems to be a somewhat closer match than that of the Robert Benjamin Lewis of Maine]

Lewis, Samuel - Mulatto male age 48, barber, b West Indies


ladydai said...

Why do people insist on referring to her as "African American" when she was in fact Native American with African ancestry? Great post by the way, I've learned a lot!

barbara hardaway said...

Mary Wildfire Edmonia Lewis was the daughter of a Haitian father [Black] and a mother who was both Objiwe and Black. Both parents were of African ancestry and Lewis was certainly and African-American with Native American ancestry.
Dr. B.

Unknown said...

Find more facts and links about Edmonia Lewis on the free website

Unknown said...

Nice writeup. There is an extensive and long-overdue biography of Edmonia Lewis, covering the Bath articles and much more, on THE INDOMITABLE SPIRIT OF EDMONIA LEWIS, A NARRATIVE BIOGRAPHY, by Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson