Mary Edmonia Lewis was the first female sculptor of African American and Native American heritage to gain professional and global recognition. Born to a freed Afro-Haitian father and a Chippewa (Ojibwe) Native American mother (but orphaned at a young age), Lewis attended Oberlin College in 1860. During her academic career, Lewis struggled with both racial and gender discrimination from her peers. In 1862, two classmates accused Lewis of poisoning them, an event that led to Lewis receiving a public trial and severe beating by white attackers. Afterward, the college then accused Lewis of stealing art supplies and denied her registration for her final term, subsequently ejecting Lewis from Oberlin in 1863. Encouraged by her brother, Lewis then moved to Boston, where the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison introduced her to sculptor Edward Brackett. Under Brackett’s tutelage, Lewis began studying the art of sculpting. In 1866, she moved to Rome, Italy, and was able to pursue a successful career as an artist.
Lewis’s artworks showcased the professional blending of her African American and Native American heritage with Neoclassical styles. Though her figures had to take on European features (as to attract a white audience), Lewis successfully incorporated these traits with her own identity as a female person of color.