Much is unknown or disputed about Lewis' early and late life. Sources give her year of birth as "sometime in the 1840s," "around 1843 to 1845," "the middle of the 19th century," 1840, 1843, 1843?, 1844?, 1845, and 1845?, and her year of death as 1909, "after 1911," "last reported living in Rome in 1911," 1911?, and "date and place of her death are unknown."
She was a free-born child of an Haitian African-American father and Chippewa mother. Her birth name was Wildfire (her older brother was named Sunrise), but she changed it to Mary Edmonia while a student at Oberlin College, one of the few colleges which admitted non-white students at the time. She was orphaned as a child (age "before she was five," nine or 12) and then raised by her mother's sisters with the Ojibwa people (or "adopted by abolitionist parents"), until her brother, a successful gold miner in California, paid for her to go to college in 1859. She was accused of trying to poison two fellow-students, and in spite of being acquitted (her lawyer was John Mercer Langston), she was compelled to leave.
She was already known for her artistic talent and moved first to Boston and then to Florence and Rome, where she became a prominent member of the expatriate artists' colony. Slavery and emancipation were central themes of her sculpture. She is the first known African-American or Native American woman professional sculptor.
She disappears from the historical record in 1911.
Her most important works are Forever Free (1867) and The Death of Cleopatra (1876). She is included in an Internet directory of important Black gay and bisexual persons, but aside from her tendency to dress in masculine clothes, no evidence to support this is given.
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