Courtesy of USPS
The United States Postal Service plans to release the 45th stamp in the USPS Black Heritage Series on Jan. 26, honoring former Oberlin College student and sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Lewis was an Oberlin student from 1859–1863, when she left after facing extensive racial abuse. Lewis went on to pursue a successful career as a sculptor, producing works that often featured Afro-Indigenous subjects in Neoclassical style, along with notable pieces such as The Death of Cleopatra.
Being featured on a USPS stamp is an honor bestowed to some of the most influential figures in American history. Lewis, who is of Haitian and Ojibwe descent, will be the 43rd Black woman to receive this honor. The portrait, painted by Alex Bostic, is inspired by Augustus Marshall’s photograph of Edmonia Lewis taken between 1864 and 1871.
“Our stamps are miniature works of art that highlight the American experience,” said USPS Sr. Public Relations Representative Felicia Lott. “U.S. stamps represent the best of America; our history, our diversity, our accomplishments, and our successes. In that light, Edmonia’s story is an excellent addition to the Postal Services stamp program.”
While attending Oberlin in 1862, Lewis was accused of poisoning her two white roommates and was beaten by a white mob during the trial process. Though acquitted of the charge, Lewis was barred from registering for her final term after being accused of stealing art supplies the following year, and she did not graduate from the College.
Although Lewis faced abuse during her time at Oberlin, the stamp celebrates her life and artistic achievements. Bobbie Reno, the town historian for East Greenbush, NY, a town near Lewis’ birthplace, has researched the sculptor’s life since 2016. It was Reno’s idea to feature Lewis on a stamp; she saw it as an opportunity to further educate her community and the nation about Lewis’ important contributions. She also raised funds to help repair Lewis’ gravesite in London.
“Basically, the goal is to educate people about Edmonia, her amazing life, her amazing work. And that’s what we’re doing,” Reno said. “The grave was restored. It’s in beautiful condition now. Now people can find her, and people are finding her — they are going there to visit. It’s really been a fabulous journey. So then I got the idea — I thought, ‘Well, let me see if I can do a stamp — another way to educate.’ So it was in March of 2020 [that] I went on the Postal Services website, saw how to make an application, followed it to a T, and did it.”
After her time at Oberlin, Lewis traveled across the world, to Boston, London, and Rome, where she spent most of her artistic career. As the popularity of Neoclassicism declined over time, Lewis’ work decreased in renown. Today, many people are unaware of Lewis and her legacy, which Reno and others are attempting to change.
“The whole thing is to introduce Edmonia to a modern-day public and have them appreciate her work,” Reno said.
While the stamp celebrates Lewis on a national scale, she is also being commemorated at Oberlin as part of the History Design Lab’s African-American Women Intellectual Project. This project and Reno’s efforts are an attempt to preserve Lewis’s legacy, educating students and the public alike on her accomplishments.