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BY Francis Akhalbey, 8:00am January 18, 2022,

First Black American sculptor to gain international fame honored with her own U.S. Postal stamp

Edmonia Lewis has been honored with her own US Postal Service (USPS) stamp -- Left Photo Credit: NPG/Smithsonian Institution | Right Artwork: USPS

Edmonia Lewis, the first internationally recognized Black American sculptor, has been honored with her own U.S. Postal Service (USPS) stamp. According to Because of Them We Can, the stamp will be launched at a dedication ceremony that is scheduled to take place at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. on January 26.

The stamp honoring Lewis forms part of the USPS’ Black Heritage Series, and it is its 45th stamp. The honor bestowed on Lewis also makes her the 43rd Black woman to get a stamp, The Oberlin Review reported. Alex Bostic painted Lewis’ portrait, and the artwork was reportedly inspired by a photo that was taken of the trailblazing sculptor between 1864 and 1871. 

“As the public continues to discover the beautiful subtleties of Lewis’ work, scholars will further interpret her role in American art and the ways she explored, affirmed or de-emphasized her complex cultural identity to meet or expand the artistic expectations of her day,” the USPS said in a statement.

Born in Greenbush, New York, in 1844, Lewis became the first African American and Native American to attain fame as an internationally recognized sculptor in the fine arts world.

The renowned sculptor had little training, yet she overcame numerous obstacles to become a respected artist in history redefining the 19th-century definition of sculpting. Lewis became orphaned at an early age and, as her biography claimed, she was raised by her mother’s relatives.

She attended Oberlin College in Ohio where her life almost came to a disastrous halt when she was falsely accused of poisoning two White classmates. She was kidnapped, beaten by a White mob and left to die.

When she was acquitted of the charges leveled against her, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts. The audacious Lewis did not want to be anything other than to be an artist at the time when it sounded impossible for a free woman of color to pursue such a career, especially the use of marble as a medium.

While in Boston, Lewis befriended abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and sculptor Edward A. Brackett. The latter taught Lewis sculpture and aided her to set up her own studio. She gained success commercially by the early 1860s for her clay and plaster medallions of Garrison, John Brown and other abolitionist leaders.

In 1864, Lewis created her most famous work to date, and the money she earned from the sale of copies of the bust allowed her to move to Rome. It was a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Civil War hero who was shot and killed while leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

She invested over four years into her largest and most powerful work which was a depiction of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, titled “The Death of Cleopatra“. The work showed the legendary queen of ancient Egypt on her throne in her lifeless body with her head tilting backwards.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the circumstances surrounding Lewis’s death had been unknown until historian Marilyn Richardson discovered her death notice. She was said to have passed away in London on September 17, 1907. Her cause of death was listed as Bright’s disease – which is a kidney ailment. Her age was also listed as 42, though she would have been about 63.

In 2017, historian Bobbie Reno set up a GoFundMe to help raise funds to restore Lewis’ grave, Because of Them We Can reported. Reno, with the assistance of local authorities, also launched a campaign calling for Lewis to be honored with a U.S. Postal stamp.

“She identified first as a Native American. Later she identified more as an African American. She was in two worlds. She deserves her stamp,” Reno told reporters at the time.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 18, 2022


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