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The first African-American political cartoonist, Henry Jackson Lewis, was born a slave around 1837 or 1838 in Yalobusha County somewhere near Water Valley.
The oldest known cartoons by Lewis were published in 1872 about the time he settled in Pine Bluff, Ark., according to Archaeologist Marvin D. Jeter and Gallery Director Mark Cervenka, who wrote about Lewis. At some time during the early 1880s he started working for an Indianapolis newspaper, The Freeman.
His early years are obscure, Jeter and Cervenka wrote. While still a small child, he fell into a fire, blinding his left eye and crippling his left hand. He “never had a day’s schooling in his life, but . . . educated himself,” according to an 1883 article in the New York periodical Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
We also have no information at all on H. J. Lewis’s situation during the Civil War or the early postwar years and Reconstruction. We do not even know whether he still lived in Mississippi. If he did spend the war years there, they might well have been relatively quiet for him. There were no important battles in the Yalobusha County vicinity, which was remote from major strategic locations such as Memphis and Vicksburg, Jeter and Cervenka added.
We next pick up the Lewis trail in February 1872, when records show that a Henry Lewis bought a house in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The Pine Bluff city directory for 1876-77 lists a “Lewis, Henry J., laborer” living in that location, and the 1880 census includes an “H. J. Lewis” household there, including his wife (Lavinia Dixon Lewis) and their first three children (John, Richard, and Lillian). His age is listed as “40,” which would imply a birth year of 1839 or 1840.
Lewis probably did not earn his living primarily as an artist during the 1870s. We have no record of any of his drawings before 1879. In January, March, and August of that year, six engravings made by Harper’s Weekly staff artists and credited to “sketches by H. J. Lewis” showed scenes and situations along the Arkansas River in the Pine Bluff region.
Lewis must have remained active artistically, at least locally and probably regionally. In its October 25, 1882, issue, the Pine Bluff Commercial, in a series of one-paragraph entries under the heading “Additional Local News,” stated, “H. J. Lewis, the caricaturist and pencil artist is still aboard in Pine Bluff. His sketches of both imaginary and real scenes, are wonderfully correct and we bespeak for him a brilliant and successful future in his line of business.” This prediction, and the characterization of the artist as a “caricaturist,” foreshadowed Lewis’s ultimate career.
But very shortly after the article appeared, Lewis took on a new and unexpected line of artistic work, making pencil drawings of prehistoric Indian mounds and their surroundings for the Smithsonian Institution.
Several engravings derived from Lewis’s Mound Survey work (some showing flood scenes rather than mounds, or mounds as islands surrounded by floodwaters) were published in April and May 1883 in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
The next five years are, once again, lost ones as far as the artistic evidence is concerned. We have not found any further Lewis-derived engravings in Harper’s or Leslie’s from these years, nor anything at all in issues of Puck and Judge, two pictorial humor weeklies to which several sources say he contributed. If one April 1891 obituary’s statement that Lewis moved to Indianapolis “two and a half years ago” is correct, he must have made the move in late 1888, but we have no evidence of his presence there until the publication of a February 2, 1889, cartoon.
Meanwhile, in mid-1888, an energetic virtuoso of Victorian eloquence, Edward Elder Cooper, founded an Indianapolis-based weekly black newspaper called The Freeman. Some sources have credited Lewis with being a “co-founder,” but this seems unlikely. Neither his name nor his cartoons are to be found in the seventeen surviving 1888 issues of the paper.
When Republican Benjamin Harrison was elected president, Cooper responded by transforming the rather conservative-looking, sparsely-illustrated Freeman into a “National Illustrated Colored Newspaper,” which he billed as “the Harper’s Weekly of the Colored Race.” The January 5, 1889, issue featured a new engraved masthead laden with symbolic illustrations, including Abraham Lincoln loosening the shackles of a slave.
The next surviving issue of the Freeman, for February 2, 1889, includes Lewis’s earliest known work for the paper: a two-panel cartoon entitled “The Race Problem Again.” The cartoon addressed the recurring issue of federal appointments for blacks and introduced figures that became essentially “stock characters” in Lewis’s later work. One was Uncle Sam, generally represented as benevolently inclined toward blacks and a sort of conscience for white leaders. Another was Benjamin Harrison himself, depicted upon a throne-like chair and having the power and obligation to help blacks but somehow lacking the motivation or fortitude to act.
The most common theme of Lewis’s 1889 cartoons was the failure of particular politicians to support job opportunities for blacks. Among his subjects were well-known African American figures of the day, including Frederick Douglass and Blanche K. Bruce, as well as prominent white politicians including, of course, President Harrison.
After Harrison appointed Frederick Douglass ambassador to Haiti, the black press attacked the president for insulting Douglass and black Americans in general. Surely so distinguished a man deserved a post of greater importance. Lewis’s response was an ironically titled cartoon published in the July 20 Freeman, “Frederick gets the Plum” showing Harrison as a monarch, with Blaine to the right of his throne, flanked by “Oriental” attendants. Harrison tosses the “plum” to Douglass, who already has put out to sea in a rowboat headed toward the distant tropical isle of “Hayti.”
After October 1889, the Freeman ran only two new political cartoons by Lewis, one in December 1890 and another in January 1891. Although these cartoons contained veiled criticism of Harrison and his administration, the paper had essentially abandoned its oppositional tone.
Lewis died in Indianapolis, probably on April 9, 1891. The Indianapolis News, a white paper, reported, “Mr. Lewis stood toward the head of the colored artists of the country . . . but never was well in this severe climate, and died of pneumonia.” The Indianapolis Journal, in a more expansive obituary, praised his work while noting Lewis’s unfulfilled promise: “He was a genius, and with proper direction might have made his way in the world.”
Lewis’s life is perhaps best summed up in an obituary notice from the April 18, 1891, Freeman, undoubtedly written by Cooper at his eloquent best.
Mr. Lewis, in many respects, was a remarkable man, and had his lines been cast in different places, and his earlier years been spent under different skies, surrounded by other influences and aids, the space he would have filled in the world’s notice might have been one that biography would not have spurned . . . He was a genius, and when his equal shall come to us again, we do not know . . . It were but simple charity to hope that it is well with him to-day, and that his death was but an aperture through which his feverish and worn spirit took its way to spheres of higher mysteries, and a completer life, where conditions may not interfere, or man’s narrowness or unfair hatred prevent the full expression of his unique and striking gifts.