Black History Month Woman of the Day: Mary Edmonia Lewis


Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) made her claim to fame as the first African-American and Native American female sculptor. At a young age she was influenced by crafts as she helped her aunt sell Ojibwe baskets and other crafts to tourists. She attended Oberlin College outside of Cleveland, Ohio where she studied art. While there, she was accused of poisoning two white female students. Edmonia was beaten and dragged viciously while waiting for trial and left bedridden for weeks. She was acquitted of all charges after John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin graduate and the first African-American admitted to the Ohio bar, defended her.

Before completing her degree, Lewis left to pursue sculpting. She studied under master sculptor Edward A. Brackett. Edmonia opened her own studio in 1864 and created medallion portraits of the abolitionists including John Brown and Robert Gould Shaw. Lewis headed to Europe to pursue other accomplishments to further her career. She gained a neoclassical style in Rome and created her most famous work The Death of Cleopatra, Hagar and even a portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant there.

After her death she appeared on the 100 Greatest African Americans list. Edmonia’s roller coaster life serves as inspiration for many African American sculptors that followed her.