Henry Jackson Lewis is considered the first black political cartoonist in the United States. He was born a slave in either 1837 or 1838 (according to his son, Chester Arthur Lewis) in or near Water Valley, Mississippi, not far south of Oxford. He taught himself to read, write, and draw, overcoming not only his beginnings in bondage but also a childhood accident in which he fell into a fire, leaving him crippled in his left hand and blind in his left eye.
Lewis’ story does not pick up again until 1872 when he purchased a lot in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, at about the same time he married Lavinia Dixon. Chester Arthur Lewis was the last survivor of the Lewises' seven children, and it is by way of a tape-recorded interview with him that we know much of what we know about his artist father. The younger Lewis also donated some of his father’s artwork to the Du Sable Museum of African-American History in Chicago.
Lewis got his start as an artist by sketching for Harper’s Weekly during the late 1870s. His skills as a topographical and architectural draftsman helped secure him work with the Smithsonian Institution under Edward Palmer and his Indian Mound Survey. The original drawings for the project are in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. Still other engravings based on Lewis’ drawings were published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in April and May of 1883.
Around 1885, Lewis found employment as a porter at the Arkansas Gazette and learned something about the newspaper trade by watching staff artists and engravers at work. In late 1888 or early 1889, he relocated to Indianapolis, recruited by editor Edward Elder Cooper of The Freeman, a black newspaper billed by its publisher as “The Harper’s Weekly of the Colored Race” and “A National Illustrated Colored Newspaper.” Targets of his cartoons included racist policies and expressions, but Cooper and Jackson waged their harshest campaign against the Republican administration of President Benjamin Harrison (who was, incidentally, also from Indianapolis).
Lewis’ last drawing appeared in the March 28, 1891, issue of The Freeman. Less than two weeks later, on April 9, 1891, he died in Indianapolis. His family remained in Indianapolis. John W. Lewis, the oldest Lewis child, became an artist himself and drew for The Freeman, The Indianapolis World, and The Indianapolis Recorder.
Henry Jackson Lewis--the first known black political cartoonist in the United States. This is a self-portrait from the Indianapolis-based Freeman. Note that Jackson is turned to his left: a childhood accident left him blind in his left eye.
One of Lewis' drawings of Indian mounds, this one at Walnut Lake Station, Arkansas.
Finally, a pair of Lewis' political cartoons, from The Freeman, June 2, 1889.
An entry in observance of Black History Month.
Text and captions copyright 2011 by Terence E. Hanley