Lewis spent her life traveling across the Atlantic, emphasizing certain aspects of her identity based on her audience at the time. “During abolitionism, she found reciprocal interests and common ground with anti-slavery advocates,” says Kirsten Pai Buick, a professor of art history at the University of New Mexico and author of Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (2010). After slavery was abolished, Lewis sculpted religious subjects that appealed to Catholic patrons in Italy and England. And the popularity of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha—which tells the story of two star-crossed lovers from different Native American tribes—set the stage for Lewis to share anecdotes of her nomadic Chippewa childhood. (The connection was bolstered by the fact that she and the titular Hiawatha were members of the same tribe.) Lewis sculpted a version of the fictional couple in 1868, a pair of marble figures that are today on display at the Met.
This was typical practice at the time, according to Buick. “[Lewis] did nothing beyond what other artists did,” she says. “She found patronage where there was interest,”
One hundred years after Lewis sent Forever Free to Sewall, it caught the eye of James Porter, the father of African-American art history and an artist himself. Porter ended up acquiring the sculpture for Howard University, where he was both a professor and director of the art gallery. “He really tried to get the university to understand the importance of Negro art,” says Scott Baker, assistant director of the Howard University Gallery of Art. “You have to remember, this was back in 1967, so they didn’t think much of it. So he purchased it with his own money.”
Forever Free has been prominently displayed at the university ever since. As it turns out, both school and sculpture were created in the same year; they celebrated their shared 150th anniversary in 2017. The artwork currently serves as the centerpiece of an ongoing exhibition marking the sesquicentennial—a far cry from its unheralded arrival in Boston, a century and a half before.