n front of the grandstand of the Harlem Race track — the present day Forest Park Mall on Roosevelt and Desplaines — stood a tribute to an Egyptian queen, sculpted by Edmonia Lewis: “The Death of Cleopatra.”
Many Forest Parkers may be unfamiliar with this part of our legacy. So this past week you might have overlooked Google’s home page doodle featuring Edmonia Lewis sculpting her masterpiece, which kicked off February and Black History Month.
Mary Edmonia Lewis sculpted “Death of Cleopatra” for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the first official World’s Fair in the United States, which celebrated the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The 5¼ foot marble statue features the African queen at the moment of her death, allegedly from the fatal bite of a venomous asp. The statue was sculpted only a decade after the end of slavery, marked by the close of the Civil War, during the period when “Reconstruction” was failing.
The 2-ton statue came to Chicago and was displayed at the Chicago Interstate Industrial Exposition of 1878 and then later was located outside a saloon on Clark Street in Chicago. From there it was purchased by “Blind John” Condon, owner of the Harlem Racetrack, as a monument to mark the grave of his favorite horse, Cleopatra.
“The Death of Cleopatra” endured hardships — including being painted by Boy Scouts and later scrapped in a salvage yard before it was found in the 1980s. Forest Park Historical Society Director Frank Orland, in conjunction with Forest Park’s Conservation of Sculpture and Objects studio director, Andrezej Dajnowski, and the Smithsonian, restored it to its near-original state after repairing the nose, sandals, hands, chin, and other damaged areas. It is now on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
John Rice has written a work of historical fiction about Lewis and her statue, which will be available soon in bookstores. The Ghost of Cleopatra tells the story of Lewis’ masterpiece languishing for over 70 years in Forest Park.
Edmonia Lewis, Cleopatra’s creator, was the daughter of an Ojibway woman and a Haitian father. She was the first woman of African American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame as a sculptor. Her work includes themes relating to black people and indigenous people of the Americas in Neoclassical style.
And for many years, Forest Park was home to her greatest work.