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John Brown and Edmonia Lewis: Civil Rights Crusaders Who Intersected in Greenwich Village

John Brown (left) 1846-1847 and Edmonia Lewis (right) 1870

Greenwich Village has long been a mecca and incubator for radical social justice advocates. With Village Preservation’s interactive map of the Greenwich Village Historic District as well as our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, we can take a virtual walk through the neighborhood to visit significant sites related to many of these remarkable activists. John Brown and Edmonia Lewis are two pioneering traliblazers who left an imprint on Greenwich Village in an interestingly intersecting way, and who are new additions to both our interactive map of the Greenwich Village Historic District and our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.

Brown’s connection to Greenwich Village begins with Thaddeus Hyatt, a prominent inventor and ardent abolitionist (and also a recent addition to our maps). One of Hyatt’s greatest inspirations and closest collaborators was Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859), an abolitionist leader who believed that the only way to end American slavery was through force, as decades of peaceful methods had failed. Many see Brown’s actions as a catalyst for the Civil War. Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut to a strict Calvinist family with strong anti-slavery views. While he was never financially successful in his adult life, Brown was still able to aid the abolitionist cause by becoming a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad in the 1840s.

John Brown Mural at Kansas State Capitol by John Steuart Curry.

In 1855, Brown and his sons moved to Kansas to advocate for the territory entering the Union as a “free state.” John Brown became nationally known through his involvement in this conflict. The National Kansas Committee was formed the following year to provide financial support to abolitionist settlers in Kansas. Through the National Kansas Committee, Brown became acquainted with Thaddeus Hyatt, a New York City abolitionist and inventor. Together, they became leaders of the free state faction during the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict — the bloody struggle for control of the Kansas Territory by pro- and anti-slavery forces to ensure it entered the union on their respective side. Whenever Brown was in New York City, he made Hyatt’s townhouse at 46 Morton Street in Greenwich Village his unofficial headquarters.

The Last Moments of John Brown by Thomas Hovendon

In October 1859, Brown led a raid and demonstration on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in hopes of inciting a slave rebellion in the southern states. Brown and his party of 22 abolitionists were defeated by the United States Marines. Ten were killed on-site, seven were captured, tried, and executed by the United States government, and five escaped. John Brown was captured and found guilty of treason as a result of the raid. Brown was executed for his role in the raid on December 2, 1859. Brown’s willingness to sacrifice his life for the abolitionist cause immediately elevated him to the status of American folk hero. 

Newspaper advertisement for Edmonia Lewis’ John Brown Medallions.

Sculptor Edmonia Lewis (July 4, 1844 – September 17, 1907) was a trailblazer and civil rights icon of a different sort. Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York outside of Albany to a Haitian father and Chippewa mother, both of whom died when she was a child. Lewis lived with the Chippewa tribe until she was 14, when her brother helped send her to Oberlin College in Ohio. Following her time at Oberlin, she studied sculpture in Boston with Edward Augustus Brackett. She worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy, eventually becoming the first African-American and Native American sculptor to achieve national or international prominence. She began to gain widespread notice and acclaim in the United States during the Civil War; by the end of the 19th century, she remained the only Black woman artist who had participated in and been recognized to any extent by the American artistic mainstream

When Lewis began her career as a sculptor, John Brown’s statue as American folk hero and icon of the abolitionist movement made him the subject of many works of art. Lewis began sculpting making commemorative medallions to honor John Brown.

Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, carved 1876, marble.

In 1866, Lewis traveled to Europe, visiting London, Paris, and Florence before deciding to settle in Rome. After moving to Rome, Lewis created her most well-known work, The Death of Cleopatra, which was shown at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Lewis depicted Cleopatra in striking detail, her lifeless body splayed across the throne. In this work, Lewis renders Cleopatra’s final act as one of defiance in defining how she will be remembered in history.

Edmonia Lewis’ bust of John Brown donated to Shiloh Presbyterian Church.

One of Lewis’ greatest works was the bust of John Brown she created for Shiloh Presbyterian Church at 450 Sixth Avenue (10th/11th Street — demolished) in Greenwich Village — an African American church known for its crusading abolitionist activities before slavery was outlawed, and for its powerful voice around civil rights after. On December 26, 1878, a reception was held for Lewis to unveil the bust and present it to the church’s leader, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, D.D., one of the foremost civil rights leaders of the time. The reception honored both the sculptor’s illustrious career and John Brown’s sacrifice to the cause of abolition following his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry and armed slave revolt he led, and his subsequent execution. Speakers read poems that breathlessly described Lewis’ work while offering personal remembrances of their friend and ally John Brown.

450 Sixth Avenue today (this former warehouse replaced the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in the early 20th century).

This commission came around the apex of Lewis’ career; just a year earlier she was chosen by President Ulysses S. Grant to do his portrait, and she would later produce a bust of Massachusetts’ fiery abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, who helped lead efforts in support of true Reconstruction of the South, and who famously was nearly beaten to death with a cane on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks after delivering an anti-slavery speech in 1856. But when Lewis’ favored style of neo-classicism declined in popularity in the 1880s, so did she. She died in Europe, where she chose to live, though in early 2022 the United States Postal Service unveiled its new Edmonia Lewis commemorative stamp.

Lewis and her stamp.

While neither Brown nor Lewis lived in Greenwich Village, they are indicative of its place as a hub for progressive social and political ideals. Please visit Village Preservation’s interactive map of the Greenwich Village Historic District as well as our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map to learn more about John Brown’s and Edmonia Lewis’ connection to the Village and other critical civil rights and historic figures.

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