The late African-American Catholic sculptor Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis is slated to receive a US postage stamp on Wednesday, January 26th in the USPS’ Black Heritage series, the postal service has announced.
The new stamp was announced late last month.
Lewis is said to have been both the first African-American and the first Indigenous sculptor to earn international recognition, as she was of Mississauga Ojibwe descent on her mother’s side.
Born free in New York in the mid-1800s, Lewis became one of the first female (and first Black) students at what would become Oberlin College. There, she lived the experience of intersectionality and was eventually run out of town and school by White terrorists in 1863.
Lewis moved to Boston the next year and discovered sculpture, which soon became her life’s passion, bringing her renown as she melded her cultural experiences as a Black Indian into her work.
Preceding the Civil War, she established business relationships with prominent abolitionists such as John Brown (of Harper’s Ferry fame) and expanded her networks throughout the Northeast. Within a few years, however, she set sail for Rome with US patrons’ continuing support.
Her most famous works were created during this time, including “Forever Free”, an ode to her ancestors’ emergence from chattel slavery, and “The Death of Cleopatra”, which she exhibited stateside at the 1876 World’s Fair for the US centennial.
The next year, following the end of Reconstruction (and his presidency), Ulysses Grant commissioned Lewis for his portrait, a monumental moment that also marked the end of her epoch.
A devout Catholic, Lewis would remain in Rome for several decades, fading into obscurity as the neoclassical era of art waned. She moved to Paris in 1896, and to London in 1901. She died on September 17th, 1907.
It would be another 110 years before her grave was restored, following an uptick in her notoriety among US and other historians, including a number of biographers.
Albert Henderson released “The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis” in 2013, and Lewis’ work is currently on display in museums around the country. A new exhibition featuring her work will open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 10th.
The dedication ceremony for her new stamp will be held at 12:30pm ET on Wednesday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC—which also hosts her work—and the event will be livestreamed on the USPS Facebook page.
Preorders for the stamp are available now.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).