Today, we honor Wilberforce University alumna and sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907). She played a vital role sending messages to those who need it most.

“Edmonia Lewis marketed her work to Wilberforce University and other HBCUs by ‘direct mail’ (writing letters): affordable plaster busts of Bishop BW Arnett, Sen. Sumner, John Brown, around 1876, the time of the Centennial,” wrote Albert Henderson on Twitter, celebrating the life and legacy of a lost but never forgotten hero. Henderson is the author of the award-winning biography of the pioneering artist. According to him, Lewis is the first American sculptor of color and an artist at war.

Wilberforce which is adjacent to Ohio’s only public HBCU, Central State University, is the nation’s oldest private black college in the nation.

In a story by Henderson on about how Lewis managed to emancipate herself three times, he noted that “Henry Wreford (Athenæum, Mar.  3, 1866) described the first Emancipation statue sculpted by an African-American artist: “Her first ideal group was to be executed under a promise for some gentlemen in Boston, and, in the true spirit of a heroine, she has selected for her subject ‘The Freedwoman on first hearing of her Liberty.’”

He continued:

“She has thrown herself on her knees, and, with clasped hands and uplifted eyes, she blesses God for her redemption. Her boy, ignorant of the cause of her agitation, hangs over her knees and clings to her waist. She wears the turban which was used when at work. Around her wrists are the half-broken manacles, and the chain lies on the ground attached to a large ball. ‘Yes,’ she observed, ‘so was my race treated in the market and elsewhere.’ It tells, with much eloquence, a painful story.”

“A dispute arose with her biggest booster in New England, Lydia Maria Child. Mrs Child was one of several women to whom Lewis sent photographs of her work. “The Freedwoman” was not seen again and was rarely mentioned in later interviews. Edmonia went on to a second Emancipation vision, which we now know as Forever Free. The unfortunate conflict with Mrs. Child continued. Forever Free found a home in Boston without Mrs. Child’s blessing. It is owned today by Howard University in Washington DC.”

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