It took 160 years but a great injustice has been righted. The last member of Oberlin College’s Class of 1862 has finally graduated. Mary Edmonia Lewis received her “Posthumous Diploma of the Ladies’ Course.” And it would never have happened without the tireless efforts of the Town Historian of East Greenbush, New York.
Roberta “Bobbie” Reno had never heard of the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who was born in East Greenbush in 1844, until she took the job as historian. Since then, she has spread the word about Lewis and was the driving force behind the commemorative stamp that was issued to honor her.
Bobbie didn’t stop there. After Lewis’ grave was located in London, she hired a company to restore the gravesite. They installed a small slab bearing Lewis’ name and dates of birth and death. The sculptor had specified this modest grave marker in her will. But it was the “incident” at Oberlin College and the way Lewis was treated that always bothered Bobbie.
Lewis was ready to finish her final semester of senior year when she pulled a prank that went horribly wrong. She slipped Spanish fly into some spiced wine she served to two of her white classmates. Marie and Christina became deathly ill.
As a result, Lewis was beaten by a mob and charged with two counts of attempted murder. After she was acquitted, Lewis expected to continue her studies and obtain her degree. Instead, she was accused of stealing art supplies and forced to leave Oberlin. It was a huge disappointment that lingered long after she recovered from her injuries.
Bobbie believed that Lewis had been a victim of racial and gender discrimination and deserved her degree. On Nov. 18, 2020, she wrote a letter to Dean David Kamitsuka requesting a posthumous honorary degree in the Arts for Lewis. “We owe it to history and the present to right the injustices we encounter,” wrote Bobbie.
Her request went before a committee that awards honorary degrees but the pandemic slowed the process to a crawl. On May 28, 2021, Bobbie sent another letter inquiring about her request. Finally, in April 2022, Oberlin sent the reply that brought tears to her eyes. The college wasn’t going to give Lewis an honorary degree. They were granting her an actual degree.
The letter invited Bobbie to attend the commencement and stated, “We are elated to extend this diploma to Edmonia Lewis.” Bobbie wasn’t able to attend the ceremony on June 5, 2022 but watched the live feed. President Carmen Ambar declared, “We are here to right a previous wrong.” Later that month, Bobbie received the diploma.
She applauds the college for admitting their mistake and rectifying it. She described Lewis as an intelligent woman who adapted to college after living a life in the wild. Lewis worked hard for her degree and fought racial and gender discrimination her entire life. Bobbie believes the incident fueled Lewis’ determination to become an acclaimed sculptor. It put a life-long chip on her shoulder.
Bobbie is understandably pleased that her efforts to publicize Lewis have paid off. She said her gravesite is now attracting visitors. They are surprised to find the fresh slab among all the ancient headstones.
We have our own gravesite to honor right here in Forest Home Cemetery. I have been tasked with having the grave of Professor Joseph Corbin placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Corbin was a Black educator who founded the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. We need to get this done in time for his 150th birthday, Sept. 27, 2023.
No matter how long it takes, wrongs must be righted and the ignored must be recognized.