But she was frustrated with the intense focus on her race.
In 1878, she told The New York Times: “I was practically driven to Rome, in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.”
Details of Lewis’s early life are fuzzy, but biographers say she was born Mary Edmonia Lewis in Greenbush, N.Y., near Albany, in about 1844.
Her father, who worked as a gentleman’s servant, was West Indian. Her mother, who made moccasins and other trinkets that were sold to tourists, was part Chippewa. Lewis was orphaned when she was young, but her half brother, a wealthy entrepreneur, helped pay for her education.
“She was richly and variously educated by an order of black nuns in Baltimore, at a radical coeducational college in upstate New York and finally at Oberlin,” said Marilyn Richardson, an independent curator and Lewis’s longtime biographer.”
Despite Oberlin’s reputation as a haven for women and minorities, Lewis was targeted for her race. In one especially egregious incident, she was accused of poisoning two white girls with the aphrodisiac Spanish fly. She was later abducted by unidentified assailants, badly beaten and left for dead in a field.
She stayed on at school, though the following year she was accused of stealing art supplies and was not allowed to register for her final semester.
Armed with introductions to prominent abolitionists, she moved to Boston and began to recast her story, erasing the harrowing Oberlin chapter.