At Roosevelt and Hannah, marking the Harlem Racetrack was an unlikely place for the first African-American sculptor of international fame to have her work, The Death of Cleopatra showcased.
The 5.25 foot white marble statue was sculpted by Mary Edmonia Lewis for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876.
Edmonia Lewis, of African-Haitian-Ojibwe decent, was born about 1844. She studied at Oberlin College in 1859 and under the urging of Fredrick Douglass, went to Rome to pursue her career. While in Rome, Lewis sculpted Cleopatra, a ruler of Egypt who chose to die from the bite of an asp rather than submit to her enemies.
One of the few artists of African or Native American decent featured at the Centennial, her work was a sensation. Her sculpture was said to have challenged the Centennial’s national ideals of unity and liberty, by representing the centuries of African slavery. The masterpiece was unsold at the expedition and placed in storage. In 1878 it was brought to the Chicago Interstate Exposition. Somehow the sculpture made its way to a saloon on Clark St. and then was acquired by a gambler and owner of the Harlem Racetrack, “Blind John” Condon who purchased it to mark the grave of a racehorse named “Cleopatra.”
It remained at Roosevelt and Hannah even when the racetrack closed and converted into a nine-hole golf course (in the 1920’s). When the golf course expanded to 18- holes (circa 1935) the statue was moved to the practice field pond, according to Lyn Anderson’s interview with Elmer Licht in the July 10, 1985 Forest Park Review. This land later became part of the Naval Ordnance plant.
It was hauled off in the 1970’s to a storage yard in Cicero, where it lay deteriorating when it was spotted by Harold Adams, local fire inspector. His local Boy Scout Troop painted the statue before Dr. Frank Orland, president of the Historical Society of Forest Park worked to return the sculpture to Forest Park in 1985. Once back in Forest Park, it was safely cared for before moving one more time in 1994, where after $30,000 of restoration work, was placed for future generations to reflect upon, on the third floor of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.