Suhkuhegarequa “Wildfire” Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis exhibited the “Veiled Bride of Spring” in Fall of 1879 in Cincinnati and immediately became engaged with the local Black community and… the Cincinnati Catholic Church during one of its hardest times in the late 1800s.

edmonia-lewis-2Edmonia Lewis was no stranger to controversy. Indeed she used it to her advantage for white audiences, who had trouble identifying her. The concept of a noted woman sculptor of color in the U.S. was foreign (so foreign that she was more accepted there), and the papers had no idea whether to call her a “negress sculptor” or a “negro sculptress.” Indeed, they didn’t even know how basic genetics work. The Nebraska State Journal wrote on 16 May 1874, “Miss Edmonia Lewis, the colored sculptor, is half Indian and half African, but the blending of these natures is not altogether perfect. Her jet black hair, on one side of her head is short, crisp and crink, like that of the African, and on the other side it is long and wavy, more like that of the Indian.”

Wildly ignorant and racist remarks like this were used to describe her heritage, and newspapers just couldn’t refrain from describing her physical features and scandalous history in great (and ever-changing) detail. Impressively, Lewis, a media magnet, found a way to capitalize off not belonging to the white heteropatriarchy by sensationalizing herself to the very people who ostracized and othered her.

Shaping the Stage

At the national centennial celebration in 1876, Edmonia Lewis, exhibiting her “Dying Cleopatra,” met one of the nation’s foremost black activists Peter H. Clark, who ran Gaines High School in Cincinnati, one of the first black schools in Ohio, created just after the Civil War ended. He bought three sculptures—of John Brown, Charles Sumner, and her hero Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—from Lewis in 1876 and brought them home to Cincinnati. He lent the busts of Brown and Sumner to the Robert Clarke & Co. publishing company to exhibit in their window display, while Longfellow was sent away for repair. For Clark, supporting an Oberlin student and a Black woman who created sculptures of abolitionists was incredibly important. Later, Longfellow’s bust adorned the halls of Gaines High School. There is no doubt Lewis saw it in its home when she came to stay with Clark in November of 1878 before setting off on tour. She had been here on professional business and hadn’t considered exhibiting here.

Cincinnati’s Archbishop John Baptist Purcell was the most prominent Catholic leader in the country at the time and was supposedly the first to have supported abolition. He and the Beechers would have been brutal enemies. The Beechers had gone to Cincinnati to stop the spread of Catholicism, and here Purcell was doing just that…and successfully so with an increasing German and Irish population, growing one church to 40 parishes. With mistrust of banks, the Purcells used individuals to take out loans for building and operating churches and orphanages. But the economy crashed in the fall of 1878, and the Purcell left with great debt—over $5 million today.

In March 1879 those debts were called in, and the ladies organized fundraisers, forming the Ladies’ Archbishop’s Aid Society. After the first few meetings in their home parlors, they met in the Grand Opera-house Building basement to organize a benefit concert that occurred on May 23. The concert was a success, and the neediest creditors were given priority for the Catholic Church to return the loans. But the Church needed far more, and the ladies organized a bazaar. They had gone back and forth on where to have it: Fourth Street, Fifth Street Marketpolace, the new Springer Music Hall, Washington Park, or in the yard behind Purcell’s St. Peter in Chains. Because the exposition was also about to start, Music Hall and Washington Park were quickly vetoed as it was to be held there. They ended up going for the St. Peter’s, but they had no building or tent big enough and hadn’t decided until the first week of September, contracting Frank Burns from Walnut Hills to construct the ad hoc building within 10 days.

Edmonia Lewis, Meet Cincinnati

Fossett-wedding-ladies-bazaarEdmonia Lewis returned to Cincinnati again in September, to exhibit her “Veiled Bride of Spring,” likely staying again with Peter H. Clark and his single daughter Consuelo. On Wednesday, 17 September, the three of them attended the high-profile wedding of Peter and Sarah Fossett’s daughter Martha at Zion Baptist Church with the reception held at Hulbert’s Hall. Once her appearance was reported, the next day, all the papers began announcing that she would be the highlight of the new Ladies’ Bazaar. Had she planned on exhibiting at the exposition or going solo before the ladies came to her? I have no clue, until I find letters to and from Clark and Lewis.

Still a hotbed of border state racism, Lewis ensured to double down on her Black and Ojibwe (Chippewa) heritage, though colonialism had gotten to her in some ways, leaving her given name Suhkuhegarequa (“Wildfire” in English) and adopting the name Edmonia when attending Oberlin. “My father was not only a colored man, but he was a black man, black as your hat, and a pure-blooded negro,” she told the Enquirer. “My mother had nothing but Indian blood in her veins.” She reiterated when the reporter asked where she got her artistic talents: “I think I get my art from my mother, who was a full-blooded Indian woman.” She knew full-well that Indigenous peoples were exoticized and fetishized by white people. It’s almost definitely no coincidence that newspapers reported her as being born in a wigwam while the Enquirer referred to the temporary Ladies’ Bazaar building as a “wigwam” when Lewis was the highlight. Leaning into her colored heritage, though, helped her stand out as an artist and also rub her success in the face of systemic racism. In addition to her otherness as a biracial woman sculptor, she was a single, successful woman. When asked if she was married, she told the Enquirer, “No—yes, I am wedded to my art.”

Edmonia Lewis stittingShe knew how to work a white audience. Catering to them, she amped up her Cincinnati connection by talking about meeting famous Cincinnati sculptor Hiram Powers. She also told the Enquirer that she was working on a life-sized bust of Archbishop Purcell, which wasn’t out-of-character for her to sculpt the first abolitionist archbishop in the nation, especially given her previous relations with the Catholic Church. Was this bust one of her professional engagements she came to town for the last November? “All she needed to do was show up with one or more of her statues,” write Harry and Albert Henderson of her tours for white audiences. “She shamed crude injustices with a quiet, gracious dignity while her legendary figures looked on.”

The Ladies’ Bazaar

Just a few days after the Fossett wedding, the Ladies’ Bazaar opened at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, 23 September 1879 in a now-dubbed “wigwam” built for it at the corner of 8th and Central. The one-story building, running north and south, was 50’x100’x60′ had two rows of pillars running through it. Entrances were on Central Avenue, Eighth Street, and Plum Street. Admission to the Bazaar was 25 cents, 10 cents for children, and $1 for season tickets. Chinese lanterns lit the grounds at night, until its close at 10 pm. Picture a structure like Findlay Market.

Ladies Bazaar setup

Past the floral arrangements, the pottery and hand-carved furniture by local women, china sets, glassware, clothing, quilts, and foodstuffs, Edmonia displayed her “almost life-size” four-foot-tall “Bride,” a statue two years in the making in Paris, France. The organizers prominently featured it under a skylight in the southwest corner. The Daily Star described the “Bride” as “a female figure, removing the vail of winter from her face, while slightly stooping among the flowers. The expression of the face, which is seen through the vail, is the admirable point about the statue.”

The Enquirer wrote, “The only robe of the figure is a veil, which shows the form to fine advantage, and yet one of the characteristics of the work is its chasteness. The feet are bare, and prettier feet a bride never had. The veil entirely covers the face, and the expression is seen through it. Artists appreciate the difficulty of this work. It combines painting and sculpture. Examined closely the effect is lost, but at the proper distance it is very fine. On the head of the figure and over the veil is a wreath of flowers. Also, in the hand is held a rope of roses, which is thrown carelessly over the limbs.”

Lewis had intended to auction off the statue, which was worth about $30,000 today, but something else happened. People bought votes, or subscriptions, to a few chosen people who would be eligible to get the statue—all organizers of the bazaar: Mrs. Groesbeck, Mrs. Probasco, Mrs. George H. Pendleton, Mrs. Lincoln, Sister Anthony and Mrs. Reuben Springer. When the worth of the statue was covered, then the statue would be donated. Early subscribers were George F. Armstrong, W. Roer, Father Ennis, Miss Ellen Enright, Miss Walch, Miss Annie Donahoe, and P. Poland. By the end of 08 October, Sister Anthony had been in the lead with 50 subscriptions.

The bazaar ended on 18 October at 10 pm with an auction, and Sister Anthony won the statue by having the most subscriptions in her honor—75 in all. Lewis presented the statue to her on the nun’s 44th birthday, 30 October 1879. Sister Anthony displayed it proudly at Good Samaritan Hospital. This act is quite amusing. To me, it’s an act of resistance and reclamation—Lewis giving a statue of a pagan goddess to the Catholic Church. Whether or not, that was what Lewis intended, we don’t know. The Catholic Executive Committee voted to destroy the Ladies’ Bazaar building, no longer called a wigwam, and the deadline for razing proposals was due the same day the “Bride” was donated to Sister Anthony.

On 17 December, Lewis sailed back to Europe, leaving behind the country that once marred her but then welcomed her as an exotic circus act.

Traces of Edmonia’s Stay in Cincinnati

Lewis’ artistic contributions to Cincinnati mostly left the area. When Clark left Cincinnati, he likely took his Lewis busts with him. I’ve been in contact with the Cincinnati Archdiocese to figure out what happened to Lewis’s bust of Purcell, if it ever existed. They figure it was never done due to the trouble he was in and the Catholic Church not being able to afford it. This very well could have been so, especially since she made nothing, perhaps even lost money, on the tour.

Veiled Bride of Spring
Veiled Bride of Spring, 2006; Photo credit: Cowan’s Auctions

When Good Sam moved hospitals, one of the physicians took or bought the statue and placed it in his flower garden in Paris, Kentucky, where it became weathered and worn, especially on the veiled, flower-crowned head, decreasing the impressive sheerness and sharpness of the veiled face. Eventually, the statue made its way to the Bourbon County-Paris Library as the “pretty lady” in the corner that greeted visitors. It wasn’t until 2006 when Buck Pennington suspected in 2006 that the statue was Lewis’s “Bride of Spring.” He then confirmed it with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and in October 2007, it was soon auctioned off by Cowan’s to a private bidder. I do hope it is the hands of someone who truly appreciates Edmonia Lewis.

In the meantime, for Cincy folks to get their Edmonia fix, you can find her work at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The Edmonia Tour

  • Peter H. Clark’s House: Razed for the new, widened Liberty Street, about where the green space is on the South side of current Liberty, near Central Avenue.

  • The Wedding: Razed. Zion Baptist Church, north side of 9th between Central Ave. and John St. Razed; currently Gateway Plaza. The current church stands just across the site.

  • The Reception: Razed. This was Hulbert’s Hall at 88 Western Ave., which was on the east side of Western, south of York. It would have been situated on what is now I-75, just parallel to Roy Tailors Uniforms sign.

  • The Bazaar: Razed. Where the western addition of St. Peter in Chains is located, at the Southeast corner of 8th and Central, was a green space, where the temporary bazaar building was built.

  • Good Sam: The old Good Sam Hospital was located at the southeast corner of 6th and Lock, currently situated where the 471 exit for 6th street currently goes over 471.

  • CAM: Though it was not displayed here during this period, you can see the “Marriage of Hiawatha” prominently displayed as a permanent exhibit, at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Sources: Newspapers.com, The Cincinnati Archdiocese, The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis by Harry and Albert Henderson, Williams Directory of Cincinnati, Library of Congress, Cincinnati Museum Center Library and Archives, Cowan’s Auction, photo of the “Bride” courtesy of Cowan’s Auction

This page was researched and written by S. E. Andres.

St. Peter in Chains Cathedral how it currently looks, built over the Ladies' Bazaar building.
Taken in Feb. 2020, this is the addition on the back of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, built over where the Ladies’ Bazaar building stood.

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