Edmonia Lewis: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

To kick off Black History Month, Google has chosen to celebrate the first internationally renowned African-American sculptor. Edmonia Lewis is honored by the search engine on February 1. Lewis, who was of African and Native American heritage, was born in New York in 1844 but lived most of her professional life in Europe, settling in Rome. Until her teenage years, Lewis went by the Native American name, Wildfire. She passed away at the age of 63 in London in 1907. Her father was Afro-Haitian while her mother was half Mississauga Ojibwe and half African-American.

The Google Doodle demonstrates Lewis creating arguably her most famous work, The Death of Cleopatra. It is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. The blog about the doodle concludes, “Today, we celebrate her and what she stands for – self-expression through art, even in the face of adversary.”

Here’s what you need to know:
1. She Was Accused of Poisoning 2 of Her College Friends

Lewis’s parents were both dead by the time she had turned nine. At which point she went to live with two aunts close to Niagra Falls in New York. While there, Lewis sold Ojibwe trinkets to tourists in the 19th century.

At the age of 15, Lewis went to study at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was one of the few schools to accept women of different ethnicities as students. Black students had been admitted at the school since 1835. She boarded here with the Reverend John Keep and his wife. The family was abolitionists.

Later in her college career, an incident occurred that threatened Lewis’s freedom. While planning to go sledding with a group of men, Lewis and two friends drank spiced wine. It emerged that the women had been poisoned with cantharides.


Lewis was put on trial and accused of poisoning her friends. During this time, Lewis was beaten by a group of men in Oberlin over the incident. She was represented during the trial by the only practicing black lawyer in the town, John Mercer Langston.

Despite not taking the stand and the non-liberal views of the Oberlin townspeople, Lewis was acquitted of any wrongdoings. Her friends made full recoveries.

Another scandal emerged a year later when Lewis was accused of stealing her classmate work. A scandal that resulted in Lewis being prevented from graduating. The allegations were later quashed due to a lack of evidence, but Lewis never graduated from Oberlin.

2. Her Sexuality Has Been Much Speculated Upon by Historians

According to the Gay History Project, Lewis’ sexuality has been much speculated upon. She never married and never had any children.

The speculation is fuelled by, according to the project, Lewis’s “androgynous style of dress.”

Author Samuel Lewis wrote in African American Art and Artists about the spiced wine allegations saying, “Most people believed that, if Edmonia had in fact served the drug to the young women, her intent was more likely to promote sexual stimulation than to poison.”

In a blog posting on the LGBT Institute’s page, it reads that while living in Rome, Lewis had been friendly with “Charlotte Cushman and her lover Harriet Hosmer as well as other feminists in their artistic lesbian circle.”

3. The Circumstances of Her Death Remained a Mystery for Many Years

One of Lewis’s most famous achievements in her later years was a bust of President Ulysses S. Grant in which Grant sat and modeled. Lewis would frequently return to the United States to exhibit her work. After living in Rome, her fame slipped away, Lewis decamped to London in 1901. Her official website says that Lewis also spent time in Paris.

Lewis died in September 1907. Cowan’s Auctions reports that Lewis was thought for years to have died in 1911 in Rome. While some speculated that Lewis lived out her final years in San Francisco. The Toast says that Lewis suffered from Bright’s disease and is buried in a Catholic graveyard in London.

4. Her Brother Settled Far Away From Lewis’ Artistic Life in a Small Montana Town

Lewis’ brother was Samuel Lewis who worked as a miner while his sister pursued her artistry. He moved from New York to Idaho and eventually to Montana. In between, he spent time as a barber in San Francisco. He used that skill to open a barber shop in Bozeman, Montana. Soon, Samuel Lewis became a real estate investor and married Mrs. Melissa Raile Bruce, a widow with six children. They had one son.

Samuel Lewis home is on the National Register of Historic Places. He passed away in 1896 and is buried in Bozeman.

5. Google Is Continuing Their Proud Record of Teaching Black History in February

In February 2016, Google announced a virtual experience to coincide with Black History Month. Among the documents obtained by the Google Cultural Institute are the original manuscript of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Not to mention, Frederick Douglass’s letter to his slave master where he wrote, “I love you but I hate slavery.”

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