Never underestimate the power of small-town historians. Thanks to the late Dr. Frank Orland, the statue “The Death of Cleopatra” was rescued from obscurity. Another small-town historian, Bobbi Reno, led the efforts to honor the statue’s sculptor, Edmonia Lewis.
Reno heads the historical society in Lewis’ hometown of East Greenbush, New York. Her championing of the Native American/African American sculptor has culminated in The United States Postal Service (USPS) issuing an Edmonia Lewis Black Heritage Forever Stamp on Jan. 26.
The Black Heritage stamp series began in 1978 with a stamp honoring Harriet Tubman. Over the years, the series has honored Black leaders, inventors, educators, scientists, entrepreneurs, athletes and entertainers. Lewis is the first internationally recognized Black American sculptor to be honored.
The Lewis stamp took years of effort to be issued. Reno had never heard of Lewis, who was born in East Greenbush in 1844, until an acquaintance told her of the acclaimed sculptor. Reno immediately began researching Lewis. Her biggest discovery was Lewis’ grave in London’s St. Mary’s Cemetery. When she saw how neglected the gravesite was, she raised funds to have it restored.
Her next campaign was to have a stamp issued to honor Lewis. In 2019, she completed the application to the USPS. She had the backing of the local legislature, which issued a proclamation honoring Lewis. In July 2020, she learned the USPS was considering issuing the stamp.
Each year, the USPS receives about 30,000 suggestions for stamp ideas. Only 25-30 of these are sent to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee. The committee reviews the suggestions and makes their recommendations to the Postmaster General. It takes at least three years for the committee to complete its work before the stamp is released. Reno was thrilled to hear the stamp would be issued.
The portrait of Lewis on the stamp is based on a photograph that was taken of her between 1864 and 1871. It was painted by Alex Bostic, who was commissioned by the USPS in 2019. Lewis resonated with him, partly because he is also a Black artist. He purposely gave Lewis a look of determination. Reno would approve of his depiction because she has published a children’s book titled, Edmonia Lewis: A Sculptor of Determination and Courage.
Bostic will be attending the ceremony in D.C. The unveiling of his portrait and the dedication of the stamp will be done by Dr. Joshua D. Colin a USPS official. The ceremony is open to the public and will take place in the presence of the “Death of Cleopatra.” The statue rests on a wooden pedestal that bears a plaque: “A Gift from the Forest Park Historical Society.”
The USPS is issuing 35 million Edmonia Lewis stamps. They are “Forever” stamps, which are equal in value to the current First Class stamp. They will be for sale at post offices on June 26, including the Forest Park facility. Felicia Lott, a senior PR representative for the USPS said, “Our stamps are miniature works of art that represent the best of America — our history, diversity, accomplishments and successes.”
The stamp will raise the public’s awareness of Lewis and may promote the cultural profiles of Forest Park and East Greenbush. The towns have similar demographics. Both are densely populated with about 15,000 residents. Our small-town historian is responsible for rescuing Lewis’ greatest work, while theirs was successful in having Lewis receive the honor she has long deserved.
Now it’s up to us to spread the legacy of Edmonia Lewis and teach our children about a celebrated sculptor and her masterpiece which were both rescued from obscurity.