When people first saw it in Philadelphia, in 1876, at America’s big 100th birthday party, they were so surprised to discover that the sculptor was a woman! Still more unusual, she was an African American. Her name was Mary Edmonia Lewis.
Her ancestors came from Africa, Haiti, and the Native American Ojibwa (or Chippewa) tribe. She grew up in western New York. With money her big brother made mining for gold out west, talented Edmonia went to Ohio’s Oberlin College, but not for long. Two white girls there lied, saying she tried to poison them, then a bunch of people beat her up. So her brother helped her settle in Boston, where she learned to sculpt. By age 20, Ms. Lewis had her own sculpture studio. She was so successful that she was able to leave racist, Civil War-torn America in 1865, to sculpt and study in Rome. When she heard the glorious news that the war was over and America’s slaves were emancipated, she celebrated by sculpting an African American man and woman, unchained.
In the years after she created her dying Cleopatra, both the artist and her masterpiece were lost to history. But now we know that Ms. Lewis ended her days in England, in 1907. Her Cleopatra wound up in Washington DC.
But there’s a little more to tell.
About the time Ms. Lewis left for Italy, President Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Ball was held, March 6, 1865, at the old Patent Office Building when it was new. Little did he know that, in about five weeks, he’d be mortally wounded over at Ford’s Theatre. Or that the building where he and his wife were dancing would be a treasure house of art, including a dying queen sculpted by a great African American artist.
Tomorrow Amy Nathan is going to tell you about Sarah Key Evans, a young African American private in the US Army, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus -- three years before Rosa Parks.