Rensselaer County 19th century sculptor honored with newest Black Heritage stamp

EAST GREENBUSH – As a Native American, Black and Roman Catholic woman, Edmonia Lewis overcame the prejudices that saw her rise in the late 19th century to gain international fame and become America’s greatest sculptor, although she had to travel to Europe to work.

Lewis was born in 1844 in a cottage in the countryside of Greenbush – today the town of Rensselaer and the towns of East Greenbush, North Greenbush and Sand Lake. Her mother was an Ojibwa / Chippewa Native American from Albany known for her moccasin embroidery work and her father was Black, a man who may have been a freed slave and who worked as a servant to a gentleman.

Lewis, who faded from history after his death in the UK in 1907 and reappeared in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in art museum exhibits, will make another mark on January 26. Lewis’s portrait will appear on the 45th stamp in the United States Postal Service’s Black Heritage Series.

Portrait of sculptor Edmonia Lewis made around 1870.
Portrait of sculptor Edmonia Lewis made around 1870.National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution c. 1870

“She first identified as a Native American. She later identified more as an African American. She was in two worlds. She deserves her cachet, ”said Bobbie Reno, who has campaigned with others across the country for Lewis to be honored since 2016 when she became a city historian of East Greenbush and discovered the sculptor for the first time.

Reno researched Lewis’ life and lobbied for his cachet. The Rensselaer County Legislature supported the Reno campaign with a resolution sent to the Postal Service.

Reno raised funds to restore Lewis’s grave at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green in the London Borough of Brent in Greater London, England, where she was buried. Reno also wrote and illustrated a children’s book on Lewis titled “Edmonia Lewis: A Sculptor of Determination and Courage”.

Upon her mother’s death, Lewis moved to live with her maternal parents where she was known as the Wildfire. Lewis’s brother, Samuel Lewis, a prospector and entrepreneur, paid for her to attend Oberlin College, where she was accused of poisoning two white female college students with Spanish Fly, an aphrodisiac. Reno said it appeared Lewis had been sent as a scapegoat and acquitted. She finally left Oberlin and went to Boston where she was inspired by a statue of Benjamin Franklin, decided to become a sculptor.

“The story of his life is exciting, inspiring,” said Reno.

Bobbie Reno, the city historian of East Greenbush, reviews some of her research on Edmonia Lewis on Tuesday, December 28, 2021 in East Greenbush, NY Reno worked to get the 19th century sculptor on a US postage stamp.
Bobbie Reno, the city historian of East Greenbush, reviews some of her research on Edmonia Lewis on Tuesday, December 28, 2021 in East Greenbush, NY Reno worked to get the 19th century sculptor on a US postage stamp.Paul Buckowski / Times Union

The Lewis bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw after his death as head of the 54 All-Blackse The Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was adopted by the public, and sales of copies helped pay for her trip to Rome, Italy, to study and work as a sculptor. She will produce numerous works on the theme of Blacks and Native Americans, busts of historical figures and classical subjects adopting a neoclassical style.

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