Famous Paintings

Sculptor Edmonia Lewis honored as East Greenbush’s most famous resident

Sculptor Edmonia Lewis honored as East Greenbush's most famous resident
Written by Noah Roy

EAST GREENBUSH – The 2-week-old US postage stamp honoring trailblazing sculptor Edmonia Lewis drew a crowd to the town park’s Red Barn Wednesday to commemorate her achievements and the effort to get her on the stamp long after she died.

“It’s important you know what you have,” said Michelle Winfield, co-chair of the Downstate Committee to Honor Edmonia Lewis.

Lewis showed how, employing her talent as a sculptor in the 19th century, she was able to battle back against racism that was common at that time in the United States, said Winfield who came up from New York City with her committee co-chair Dolores Leito for the celebration.

Winfield has worked with Bobbie Reno, the East Greenbush town historians, on promoting Lewis’ accomplishments during a time when being a Black, Native American, Roman Catholic woman was to have not three but four strikes against her.

Lewis was born in 1844 in a cottage in rural Greenbush — now the city of Rensselaer and towns of East Greenbush, North Greenbush and Sand Lake. Her mother was an Ojibwa/Chippewa Native American from Albany known for her work embroidering moccasins. Her father was Black, a man who may have been a freed slave and who worked as another man’s servant.

Reno worked hard to promote getting Lewis’ image on a stamp. The mission was successful when Lewis appeared on the 45th stamp in the US Postal Service’s Black Heritage series. The stamp was released on Jan. 26 in Washington, DC

In her push to get that stamp, Reno wrote a children’s book about Lewis and helped restore her gravesite in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green in the borough of Brent in Greater London. Lewis died in 1907 in the United Kingdom after living there and achieving international fame while sculpting in Rome.

“It was hard work though, but with color and sex against me, I have achieved success,” Edmonia Lewis wrote. Reno read this and other quotes from Lewis to let her own words describe her life to the 40 people who gathered.

In her explanation for going to Rome, Lewis said, “I never hear of (racist snipes in Rome.) Why, I am invited everywhere, and am treated just as nicely as if the bluest of blue blood flowed through my veins. I number among my patrons the Marquis of Bute, Lady Ashburton and other members of the nobility.”

East Greenbush Supervisor Jack Conway said Reno fights for justice in the research she has done as town historians. Reno’s successful campaign for the recognition of Lewis, the supervisor said, is an example of this.

“Edmonia Lewis came from here,” Conway said. And over the 178 years since she was born, Conway said no other resident has gone as far and town as much in the face of sexism, racism and condemnation of her religion.

Lewis’ triumph over the odds and hatred of her times to be remembered on a postage stamp with her sculptures in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and other museums led to Gov. Kathy Hochul to issue a proclamation honoring her, US Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, to deliver a video recorded message, a proclamation from state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, and Rensselaer County Legislator Tom Grant, R-Greenbush, to read a message from the County Legislature, which backed Reno’s ultimately successful campaign to get Lewis on a stamp.

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Noah Roy

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