This week, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a Black Heritage “forever” stamp honoring Edmonia Lewis, who got her start in Boston and became the first Black and Native American sculptor to rise to international prominence. Her most famous work, “The Death of Cleopatra,” is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“Lewis really was something new under the sun. There simply was no precedent for a woman of African and Native American heritage in the era of the Civil War” to be as successful as she was, local art historian and consultant Marilyn Richardson told host Henry Santoro today on Morning Edition.
We’re honored to highlight successful African American and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis to continue our Black Heritage series. With this new stamp, you can pay homage to Lewis and her worldwide impact 🌎 Order today at https://t.co/pj71iOimVB ✉️ pic.twitter.com/e3DYPysUq9— U.S. Postal Service (@USPS) January 26, 2022
Born to a Black Caribbean father and mother from the Ojibwe tribe in New York, Lewis put down roots in Boston after studying at Oberlin College in Ohio.
“She made her way to Boston with introductions to a number of prominent abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child,” Richardson said. She then set up a studio in downtown Boston, a hub for artists, painter and sculptors, in what is now Suffolk University Law School on Tremont Street.
She dove into the abolitionist movement of the time, making medallions of prominent figures like Wendell Phillips and John Brown. And she witnessed the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first military unit made up of Black soldiers in the North during the Civil War, march past the State House to the waterfront.
“Her first smashing success was a bust of Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston Brahmin colonel who was the head of that 54th Regiment,” Richardson said. Her Robert Gould Shaw bust is now owned by the Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill.
Lewis was lucky to have some powerful patrons, Richardson said, allowing her to sell enough copies of her work to make it to Europe.
“Anyone in the 1860s — from any country in the world, really — who had hopes of developing a professional career as a sculptor, had only one goal, and that was to get to Rome,” Richardson said. “So Lewis succeeded where many, many others had to only look from a distance at that dream.”
The new USPS stamp is based on a photograph of Lewis by Augustus Marshall, created in Boston in the 1800s. The USPS Black Heritage series has honored prominent Black Americans since the 1940s, including Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Gwen Ifill and August Wilson.
“It's quite wonderful,” Richardson said about the honor.