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

EAST GREENBUSH – The 2-week U.S. postage stamp honoring pioneering sculptor Edmonia Lewis drew a crowd Wednesday to the Red Barn in City Park to commemorate her accomplishments and efforts to get her featured on the stamp long after his death.

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

Lewis showed how, employing her skill as a sculptor in the 19th century, she was able to challenge the racism that was common at that time in the United States, said Winfield who traveled from New York with her committee co-chair Dolores Leito to celebration.

Winfield worked with Bobbie Reno, the East Greenbush town historian, to promote Lewis’ accomplishments at a time when being a black, Native American, and Catholic woman must have had not three but four knocks against her.

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

Reno worked hard to promote 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 January 26 in Washington, D.C.

In his pursuit of the stamp, Reno wrote a children’s book about Lewis and helped restore his grave at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green in the Borough of Brent in Greater London. Lewis died in 1907 in the UK after living there and achieving international fame sculpting in Rome.

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

In his explanation for going to Rome, Lewis said: ‘I’ve never heard of (racist snipes in Rome.) Why, I’m invited everywhere and treated as well as if the bluest of blue blood were flowing in my veins. I count among my patrons the Marquess of Bute, Lady Ashburton and other members of the nobility.

East Greenbush supervisor Jack Conway said Reno is fighting for justice in the research she did as the town’s historian. Reno’s successful campaign for Lewis recognition, the supervisor said, is one example.

“Edmonia Lewis came from here,” Conway said. And in the 178 years since he was born, Conway said no other city resident has come this far and achieved this in the face of sexism, racism and condemnation of his religion.

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

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