1. Edmonia Lewis was born in 1845 to an African American father and Chippewa mother. Her parents died before she turned 5 and she went to live with her mother’s tribe. During this time Edmonia went by her Chippewa name, Wildfire. When she was 12 her brother Samuel (who was well off) sent her to a private school in Albany.
2. At 15, Lewis attended Oberlin College, one of the first schools to accept people of color. Her time at the school was traumatic. She was accused of poisoning two white classmates and was beaten by an angry mob. Lewis was acquitted of the charges but was not allowed to graduated.
3. After leaving Oberlin, Lewis moved to Boston studied with Sculptor Edward A. Bryant. She created medallions and busts of popular abolitionist, such as John Brown and Colonel Robert Shaw . Lewis found commercial success selling her art, and used the money to travel to Rome.
Lewis on Rome:
“I never hear of [racist snipes in Rome]. Why, I am invited everywhere, and am treated just as nicely as if the bluest of blue blood flowed through my veins. I number among my patrons the Marquis of Bute, Lady Ashburton and other members of the nobility.”
Edmonia Lewis [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
4. It was in Rome that Lewis created her most famous works, Forever Free and The Death of Cleopatra. Forever Free featured slaves breaking out of bondage and escaping to freedom. The Death of Cleopatra , portrayed the Egyptian queen in the throes of death. She brought the popular piece to the Philadelphia Expo in 1876.
5. Lewis later life is a mystery. Some records say she died in london in 1907. Others say she was living in Rome in 1911. Her work The Death of Cleopatra currently resides at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington DC.