Black Native American sculptress honored with USPS stamp

Edmonia Lewis is a pioneering Black and Native American artist from the 1800s

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Edmonia Lewis, thought to be the first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition, will be featured on a new United States Postal Service (USPS) stamp which is set debut on Jan. 26.

Lewis, born in upstate New York, moved to Europe in the 1860s. She set up an art studio in Rome, Italy and it became a must-see attraction for American tourists.

Despite her popularity during her life, most of Lewis’ work went unnoticed after her death until an art historian found one of her sculptures in the late 1980s.

The stamp is the 45th piece of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, an initiative by the postal service to commemorate pioneers in the Black community.

“As the first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition, Edmonia Lewis challenged social barriers and assumptions about artists in mid-19th century America,” reads a USPS press release.

Lewis, who is of African American and Ojibwa/Chippewa Native American descent, became an orphan at a young age after both her parents died

In 1862, her brother paid for her to attend Oberlin College in Ohio — one of the only institutions of higher learning that accepted Black students at the time.

Despite its perceived progressiveness, Lewis was wrongly accused of poisoning two white classmates and was brutally beaten and kidnapped by a white mob.

After winning an acquittal and clearing her name, Lewis left school and traveled to Boston to pursue sculpting.

Edmond Lewis - theGrio.com
This commemorative Edmonia Lewis “forever” stamp will go on sale January 26, as the 45th installment of the USPS’s Black Heritage series. (PhotoCred: United States Postal Service)

In 1864, she got her first big break after creating a sculptor of Robert Shaw, a colonel for the Union Army during the Civil War. Shaw was known for advocating for Black soldiers and leading one of the first Black regiments during the war.

The sales from her work funded her move to Italy, where she began a bustling career as a sculptor.

Her most prominent work is a 3,000-pound marble sculpture depicting the death of the most prolific Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

Lewis presented The Death of Cleopatra at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, where it received mixed reviews. Some critics were reportedly disgusted by the sculpture’s realistic portrayal of suicide.

Unable to sell the sculpture or pay for it to be sent back to Rome, Lewis left it behind where it mysteriously disappeared for decades.

In 1988, Marilyn Richardson rediscovered the sculpture in an abandoned storeroom in an Illinois shopping mall. The sculpture currently resides at the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

“The story of her life is exciting, inspirational,” said East Greenbush Town Historian Robert “Bobbie” Reno to 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,” she added.

In addition to her portraits of famous figures, Lewis’ work also “incorporated African American themes, including the celebration of newly won freedoms, and sensitively depicted her Native American heritage as peaceful and dignified,” reads a USPS statement.

Lewis will join influential African American figures like Booker T. Washington, who was the first Black person to appear on a stamp in 1940, and Harriet Tubman, who was the first Black woman to appear in 1978.

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