He was born a slave in Mississippi, possibly in 1837, and, by the time of his death in 1891, Henry Jackson Lewis was the head artist for the Indianapolis Freeman, “A National Illustrated Colored Newspaper.” Lewis is recognized as the first African-American political cartoonist, but little is known about his early life, including where he developed his impressive skills as an artist.
To share the history of his work, the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago planned an exhibit from its collection of 50 original Lewis drawings, many not displayed since 1978. The exhibit was to open in the fall of 2012. But a few months before the opening, a colleague of the exhibit curators discovered a clue on an Internet genealogy site noting that Lewis’s wife had sought a widow’s pension early from the U.S. Army. Curator Garland Taylor followed the lead and found Lewis’s 1863 enlistment in Kentucky in the U.S. Colored Troops.
From there new questions emerge. How did Lewis leave Mississippi? Did his widow ever receive his pension? And for how long was he a boatman, the occupation listed on his enlistment? Taylor postponed the exhibit and is searching for Lewis’s great-granddaughter, hoping she can help recover these lost stories.
“It does feel like you’re an investigator trying to put together the scene of this crime, which is the absence of this man from history,” Taylor says. He is also researching the meaning behind the layers of symbols in his political cartoons, drawn during a transitional period when Africana Americans were leaving the Republican Party. The exhibit, “Out of Jest,” will open in 2014.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.