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Posted under: News

Edmonia Lewis, First Internationally Recognized Black American Sculptor, Honored With US Postal Stamp

The New York native continued to thrive when she settled in Rome.

Edmonia Lewis, the first internationally recognized Black American sculptor, is getting her own U.S. Postal Service stamp. USPS will hold a dedication ceremony on Jan. 26 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. to debut the new stamp, which is based on a photo taken by Augustus Marshall in Boston somewhere 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,” USPS said in a statement, according to Because of Them We Can. 

Lewis, who was born in 1844 in Greenbush, New York, to a free Black father and an Ojibwe Native American mother, became an orphan at age 5. She lived with her mother’s nomadic family until age 12.

The trailblazer, who later changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis, faced discrimination at Oberlin College in Ohio. In 1862, two white women who were Lewis' classmates falsely accused her of poisoning their drinks. She was also accused of stealing art supplies in 1863.

Lewis, who was acquitted during both trials, was forced to quit school as she faced a highly publicized trial. The artist launched her career when she moved to Boston in 1863. As she created portraits of notable white abolitionists, Lewis saw a great demand for her work and raised enough money for her first trip to Europe.

The New York native settled in Rome and continued to thrive, making sculptures to honor her Black American and Native American roots. As Lewis gained notoriety in the U.S., her works became featured at the San Francisco Art Association in 1872 and at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.

The details of Lewis' later life were uncertain until 2011 when historian Marilyn Richardson discovered that she passed away in London in 1907. The historian also learned that the artist was buried in an unmarked grave in London’s St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. 

Historian Bobbie Reno organized a GoFundMe in 2017 to restore Lewis’ grave. He also led a campaign to honor the sculptor with a U.S. Postal stamp. Reno is now thrilled to see the stamp, which is the 45th in USPS’s Black Heritage series. 

“She identified first as a Native American. Later she identified more as an African American. She was in two worlds. She deserves her stamp,” the historian said, according to Because of Them We Can. 

According to the Oberlin Review, Lewis is the 43rd Black woman to receive such an honor. The portrait is painted by Alex Bostic. 

“Our stamps are miniature works of art that highlight the American experience,” USPS senior public relations representative Felicia Lott said, according to the Oberlin Review. “U.S. stamps represent the best of America; our history, our diversity, our accomplishments and our successes. In that light, Edmonia’s story is an excellent addition to the Postal Services stamp program.”

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