Mary Edmonia Lewis, born in 1844 in Greenbush (Rensselaer), New York, was of African and Native American descent. She became an orphan when she was young, but with help from her brother Samuel and abolitionists, Lewis was sent to Oberlin College at the age of fifteen in 1859, where she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis.
While Lewis attended Oberlin College, an incident involving her and two classmates ultimately led to a horrible mob attack. The three women, who boarded in the home of Oberlin trustee John Keep, planned to go sleigh riding with some young men later that day. Before the sleigh ride, Lewis served her friends a drink of spiced wine. Shortly after, Miles and Ennes fell severely ill. Doctors examined them and concluded that the women had some sort of poison in their system. The women did survive, and no charges were brought against Lewis.
Days later Lewis was attacked and badly beaten by the townspeople, prompting the authorities to charge Lewis with poisoning the women. Although most witnesses spoke against her, and she did not testify, the jury acquitted her of the charges.
Lewis moved to Boston in 1864 and began to pursue her career in sculpting. Inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes, her subjects in 1863 and 1864 included some of the most famous abolitionists of her day. Inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation, she carved The Freed Woman and Her Child and Forever Free in 1866 and 1867, respectively. Inspired by her Native American heritage, she constructed The Marriage of Hiawatha and The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter, both of which were based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of whom she carved more than one sculpture. Other prominent pieces include busts of Garrison (c. 1866) and Abraham Lincoln(c. 1871) and Hygeia (c. 1871), a grave-site statue that was commissioned by Harriot K. Hunt
By the end of the 19th century, Lewis was the only black woman who had been recognized by the mainstream American artistic community.