MARY EDMONIA LEWIS  was an American sculptor who worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy. Born free on this date (d: 1907) in New York, she was the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world. Her work is known for incorporating themes relating to black people and indigenous peoples of the Americas into Neoclassical-style sculpture.

In Boston, Lewis befriended abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and sculptor Edward A. Brackett. It was Brackett who taught Lewis sculpture and helped propel her to set up her own studio. By the early 1860s, her clay and plaster medallions of Garrison, John Brown and other abolitionist leaders gave her a small measure of commercial success.

In 1864, Lewis created a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Civil War hero who had died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. This was her most famous work to date and the money she earned from the sale of copies of the bust allowed her to move to Rome, home to a number of expatriate American artists, including several women.

She began to gain prominence in the United States during the American Civil War; at the end of the 19th century, she remained the only black woman who had participated in and been recognized to any degree by the American artistic mainstream. A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which portrayed the queen in the throes of death. This piece depicts the moment popularized by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra had allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp following the loss of her crown. Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was "the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section" of the Exposition. Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis's frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers. Cleopatra was considered a woman of both sensuous beauty and demonic power. Her self-annihilation has been portrayed numerously in art as well as literature and cinema. In Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis added an innovative flair by portraying the Egyptian queen in a disheveled, inelegant manner, a departure from the Victorian approach of representing death. Considering Lewis's interest in emancipation imagery as seen in her work Forever Free, it is not surprising that Lewis eliminated Cleopatra's usual companion figures of loyal slaves from her work. Lewis's The Death of Cleopatra may have been a response to the culture of the Centennial Exposition, which celebrated one-hundred years of the United States being built around the principles of liberty and freedom, a celebration of unity despite centuries of slavery, the recent Civil War, and the failing attempts and efforts of Reconstruction. In order to avoid any acknowledgement of black empowerment by the Centennial, Lewis's sculpture could not have directly addressed the subject of Emancipation.After being placed in storage, the statue was moved to the 1878 Chicago Interstate Exposition where it remained unsold.

The sculpture was acquired by a gambler by the name of "Blind John" Condon who purchased it from a saloon on Clark street to mark the grave of a Racehorse named "Cleopatra". The grave was in front of the grandstand of his Harlem race track in the Chicago suburb of Foresst Park, where the sculpture remained for nearly one hundred years until the land was bought by the U.S. Postal Service and the sculpture was moved to a construction storage yard in Cicero. While at the storage yard, The Death of Cleopatra sustained extensive damage at the hands of well-meaning Boy Scouts who painted and caused other damage to the sculpture. Dr. James Orland, a dentist in Forest Park, and member of the Forest Park Historical Society acquired the sculpture and held it in private storage at the Forest Park Mall.

A testament to Lewis's renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece. She also contributed a bust of Charles Sumner to the 1895 Atlanta Exposition.

In 2002, the scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Edmonia Lewis on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans

As they say, Edmonia Lewis never married and had no children. She is generally believed to have been a lesbian according to authors Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross in A Black Woman's Guide to the History of the United States....


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WILLIAM DORSEY SWANN (c. 1858) was an American gay liberationist activist. He was born into slavery, so we can only guess at the date of his birth. He was the first person in the United States to lead a queer resistance group and the first known person to self-identify as a "queen of drag."

Swann was a slave in Hancock Maryland and was freed by Union soldiers after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Swann organized a series of balls in Washington D.C. He called himself the "queen of drag". Most of the attendees of Swann's gatherings were men who were former slaves, and were gathering to dance in their satin and silk dresses. Because these events were secretive, invitations were often quietly made at places like the YMCA.

Swann was arrested in police raids numerous times, including in the first documented case of arrests for female impersonation in the United States, on April 12, 1888. In 1896, he was falsely convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail for "keeping a disorderly house", i.e., running a brothel. After his sentencing, he requested a pardon from President Grover Cleveland who blanched and took to his chambers, requesting his salts. Which is to say the request was denied, but Swann was the first American on record who pursued legal and political action to defend the LGBTQ community's right to gather.

Swann was known to have been close with Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two men who had also both been slaves and who formed the first known male same-sex relationship between enslaved Americans.

When Swann stopped organizing and participating in drag events, his brother continued to make costumes for the drag community. Two of his brothers had also been active participants in Swann's drag balls. Swann is the subject of the upcoming non-fiction book The House of Swann by Channing Joseph, set for publication by Picador in 2021....


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Kinmont "KIN" HOITSMA  was an American fencer born on this date (d:  2013); Hoitsma competed in the individual and team epée events at the 1956 Summer Olympics. He later became a teacher. He was a long time lover of photographer and designer, Cecil Beaton.

Hoitsma met Beaton in 1963, when the photographer was in Hollywood creating costumes and sets for the film of My Fair Lady. It was an unhappy time for Beaton because he liked to move on swiftly from one project to the next, but on this occasion he was held in Hollywood by contract ; he fell out with the director, George Cukor, and there was a period when the two men refused to speak to one another.

One weekend in March, Beaton escaped to San Francisco, where he wound up at a bar called the Tool Box and met the handsome, 6ft 3in Kin Hoitsma . “His apartment had dried grasses on the windowsill and eight daffodils were very charming in a black pot,” Beaton noted.

An unlikely friendship formed, and soon Beaton was to be found hiking in Big Sur and camping out under the stars in the Yosemite Valley. Hoitsma was able to discuss art, but he had never heard of Chanel — or, for that matter, of Beaton. The relationship was greatly encouraged by Christopher Isherwood , and Truman Capote reportedly told Beaton he had never looked better.

On his return to Britain, Beaton invited Hoitsma to move in with him. Hoitsma arrived in London in June 1964 to study at the Slade and was given modest accommodation at 8 Pelham Place, Beaton’s London home, and the smaller spare room at Reddish House, Broadchalke.

Hoitsma met Princess Margaret and became fond of Pauline de Rothschild and Countess Brandolini. But after a year he told Beaton that he had to leave: he was yearning for the hills around San Francisco. For his part, Beaton, though devoted to Kin, was not cut out for domesticity; but he was still devastated . The two men remained friends to the end.

Kinmont Trefry Hoitsma was born in Cooperstown, New York, the son of Ralph Hoitsma, a salesman in the paper trade, in turn the son of a cattle rancher in Wyoming who had emigrated from Holland.

The family was peripatetic, moving between the East Coast and the Midwest. Kin graduated from Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, and went on to Princeton University where he studied Greek and majored in French.

In 1956 he competed in the Ivy League Fencing Championship, losing narrowly in the final match, against Columbia. He went on to the collegiate finals, and in November that year, aged 22, fenced for the United States at the Melbourne Olympics. The men’s epée team did not make it beyond the first round, though in the individual men’s epée Hoitsma reached the quarter-finals, defeating the eventual gold medallist, Carlo Pavesi.

On his way back from the Games Hoitsma stopped off in San Francisco, and liked it so much that he settled there, studying Architecture at Berkeley before taking a variety of jobs. He then took an Art History degree at San Francisco State University. It was during this period that he met Beaton.

After his return from London, Hoitsma settled back into academic life, contentedly teaching history, literature, philosophy and religion at Chabot Community College for the next 30 years. On one occasion Beaton even dropped in on one of his English Literature classes, and became absorbed watching Hoitsma dashing “from one end to the other of a blackboard – an Olympic athlete of the mind at work”. In 1967 Hoitsma published The Real Mask, a dissertation on Edward Albee’s play Tiny Alice.

Hoitsma lived on Potrero Hill, where he cultivated old-fashioned roses and was visited in 1967 by Christopher Isherwood. In later life he retired to a home in Oakland, California. He died in September 2013....


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LEAH NAPOLIN , a playwright best known for her play Yentl, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's book, was born on this date (d: 2018);  Napolin was a playwright novice when her friend Robert Kalfin, founder of the Chelsea Theater Center, asked her to take a crack at writing a stage adaptation of the Singer short story that had caught his eye called Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. It involved a young Jewish woman who disguises herself as a man so that she can be allowed to study the Talmud and enrolls in a yeshiva.

The Chelsea Theater Center production opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1974, and in October 1975 it made the leap to Broadway, running for 223 performances.

Second-wave feminism was ascendant at the time, and “Yentl,” a story about a woman taking control of her own life, reflected the moment.

Isaac Bashevis Singer demanded and received equal billing as playwright, although he had only minor input and did none of the writing. When Mr. Kalfin inquired about rights to the story, he found that they had already been purchased by Barbra Streisand, resulting in drawn-out negotiations and financial concessions. (Ms. Streisand’s film musical based on the same source material was released in 1983.)

Ms. Pam, now the president of the Veteran Feminists of America, an organization of women who created feminism’s second wave, said Ms. Napolin always felt that she had been shortchanged in relation to “Yentl.”

“This injustice was a lifelong painful memory for Leah, who was then inexperienced at navigating the treacherous shoals of the business end of professional theater,” Ms. Pam said. “It was also an exemplar of why a women’s movement was needed in the first place.”

Ms. Napolin attended Alfred University, in western New York State. After graduating in 1956 she acted in summer stock, worked for an anthropological research foundation and taught music in Venezuela. In 1958 she married Bertram Katz, an artist, and for a time they taught at Ohio State University.

Ms. Napolin’s rendering of the tale leaves the romantic connections ambiguous — Yentl, still disguised as a man, marries the woman Avigdor loves.

“What we’re talking about is the androgyny of the soul,” Ms. Napolin, echoing a line from the play, said in 2014, when a remounted version with songs by Jill Sobule had re-imagined the work for the age of gender fluidity. “It’s not about men and women, men and men, women and women. It’s about people.”

Ms. Napolin’s subsequent plays included The Dogs of Pripyat, about the pets left behind in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. The play was adapted into a musical that was included in the 2012 Goodspeed Festival of New Artists in Connecticut. Her book Split at the Root: A Novel in Three Acts was published in February, and a memoir, War Baby 1935-1950”.

Ms. Napolin and Mr. Katz divorced in 2000. In 2013 she married Barbara L. Murphy, who survives her, as do two daughters, Margo Katz and Jessica Starke; a sister, and three grandchildren....


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PEDRO ZAMORA, was a Cuban-American AIDS activist born on this date (d. 1994); Zamora was an out gay Cuban-American, HIV-positive AIDS educator who became famous for his activism, testimony before Congress, and his appearance on MTV's The Real World: San Francisco.  U.S. President Bill Clinton credited Zamora with personalizing and humanizing those with the disease....


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