In the mid-1980’s, firefighter Harold Adams, a Cicero Boy Scout troop leader, contacted Dr. Frank Orland of the Historical Society of Forest Park to tell him about a unique statue located in a salvage yard there, and that it had come from Forest Park.
Dr. Orland went on to do extensive research to discover the origins of the monument, sculped from Italian marble, by Edmonia Lewis, later to be donated to the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian in 1994.
The 5½-foot-tall statue, “Death of Cleopatra,” was unveiled at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and praised by critics of the time for its daring expressivity. The abolitionist movement in the 19th century championed the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra with “evidence of African accomplishment and capability of leadership,” according to art historian Susanna W. Gold.
The guiding principles of the Centennial — unity and liberty — were inspired by the work, as centuries of African slavery were under-represented at the Exhibition. The monument was unsold and traveled to Chicago for the 1878 Chicago Interstate Exposition and it eventually showed up at a Clark Street Saloon.
Gambler and Harlem Race Track owner “Blind John” Condon acquired the statue and placed it as a grave marker for his award winning filly, Cleopatra. The Harlem Race Track was located at Roosevelt and Hannah and was in operation from 1892 to c. 1912.
With new laws limiting gambling, the race track reinvented itself as Harlem Golf Course. The statue remained at the edge of a pond and was a target for golf balls. At some point the statue was removed from view and protected from golf balls and the elements.
The great work of Edmonia Lewis remained even when the golf course was purchased by the U.S. Navy for the building of torpedoes for the Second World War. It was when the naval ordnance plant became the Bulk Mail Center in the 1970s that the statue was hauled off to a salvage yard in Cicero.
The neoclassical white Carrara marble statue survived the hardships imposed on her. Several articles, books, and chapters of history have been published on Edmonia Lewis, her life and her sculptures. Edmonia Lewis, the daughter of an Ojibway-African American mother and an Afro-Haitian father, is now known as the first sculptor of African-American and native-American decent to achieve international recognition for her art.
West suburban historian, Glennette Tilly Turner has profiled Edmonia Lewis in her research, as well as local author John Rice, in his book The Ghost of Cleopatra. This month, the U.S. Postal Service is honoring her life and legacy by issuing the Edmonia Lewis forever stamp in the Black Heritage series that is now available.