Mary Edmonia Lewis: 4 July 1844 – 17 September 1907
The “Google Doodle” caught my eye today! Since it’s the first day of February, which is Black History Month, I figured a post about the woman in the spotlight is a perfect way to start it. It isn’t lost on me that February is the shortest month of the year, but my heritage demands that I celebrate Black History on a daily basis!
Mary Edmonia Lewis was the first woman of African American and Native American descent to achieve international renown as a sculptor in the fine arts world. She incorporated themes of Black people and indigenous peoples of the Americas into the style of sculpture known as Neo-classical. From Wikipedia:
“Edmonia Lewis’s birth date has been listed as July 4, 1844. She was born in Greenbush, New York, which is now the city of Rensselaer. Her father was an Afro-Haitian, while her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent. Lewis’s mother was known as an excellent weaver and craftswoman, while her father was a gentleman’s servant. Her family background inspired Lewis in her later work.
By the time Lewis reached the age of nine, both of her parents had died. Her father died in 1847. Her two maternal aunts adopted her and her older half-brother Samuel. Samuel was born in 1835 to Lewis’s father and his first wife in Haiti. The family came to the United States when Samuel was a young child. Samuel became a barber at age 12 when his father died.
The children remained with their aunts near Niagara Falls for about four years. Lewis and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs, such as moccasins and blouses, to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo. During this time, Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire, while her brother was called Sunshine. In 1852, Samuel left for San Francisco, California, leaving Lewis in the care of a Captain S. R. Mills, although Samuel continually provided money for her board and education.
In 1856, Lewis enrolled at New York Central College, McGrawville, a Baptist abolitionist school. During her summer term there in 1858, Lewis took classes in the Primary Department in order to prepare for courses she would take in collegiate programs. In a later interview, Lewis said that she left the school after three years, having been “declared to be wild.”
At the age of 15, she attended Oberlin College, which was one of the first institutions of higher-learning to admit women, as well as people of colour and / or differing ethnicities. She studied art there from 1859 – 1863. From 1859 – 1860, she also enrolled in the school’s Young Ladies’ Preparatory Department.
An incident at the school created issues for Edmonia, shortly after the start of the Civil War:
“During winter of 1862, several months after the start of the Civil War, Edmonia Lewis was attending Oberlin when an incident occurred between her and two classmates, Maria Miles and Christina Ennes. The three women, all boarding in Keep’s home, planned to go sleigh riding with some young men later that day. Before the sleighing, Lewis served her friends a drink of spiced wine. Shortly after, Miles and Ennes fell severely ill. Doctors examined them and concluded that the two women had some sort of poison in their system, apparently cantharides, a reputed aphrodisiac. For a time it was not certain that they would survive. Days later, it became apparent that the two women would recover from the incident, and, because of their recovery, the authorities initially took no action.
News of the controversial incident rapidly spread throughout the town of Oberlin, whose populace did not generally hold the same progressive views of the college, and through Ohio. While she was walking home alone one night, she was dragged into an open field by unknown assailants and badly beaten. After the attack, local authorities arrested Lewis, charging her with poisoning her friends. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College alumnus, and the only practicing African-American lawyer in Oberlin, represented Lewis during her trial. Although most witnesses spoke against her and she did not testify, the jury acquitted her of the charges.
The remainder of Lewis’ time at Oberlin was marked with isolation and prejudice. Also, about a year after the trial, Lewis was accused of stealing artists’ materials from the college. She was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but not fully cleared. She was forbidden from registering for her last term by the principal of the Young Ladies’ Course, Marianne Dascomb, which prevented Lewis from graduating.”
Al-Jazeera states the reason for today’s honour:
“Mary Edmonia Lewis was a trailblazer who shattered racial barriers as the first professional African American sculptor in the mid-1800s, becoming famous for her 1,408kg marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra. In honouring Lewis on Wednesday, Google paid tribute to her artistic legacy and her effort to forge a path “for women and artists of colour”.
“Today, we celebrate her and what she stands for – self-expression through art, even in the face of [adversity],” the Google citation reads. February 1 is also observed in the US as National Freedom Day. On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln submitted the 13th amendment – which called for abolition of slavery – to the state legislatures.”
This lady was a genius, a creative master who should be held in the highest esteem. She is one of many who should be an inspiration to girls and young women everywhere. The strife and roadblocks that she faced were of a scale that few understand. She is truly a notable, historic figure!