The Story of Black America by Sculptor Ed Hamilton

By Lysa Allman-Baldwin

For almost 50 years, famed sculptor Ed Hamilton has made an indelible mark in the art world, his notable works capturing the rich history of African Americans in bronze.  

His internationally recognized sculptures include a likeness of boxer Joe Louis in Detroit, MI, a tribute to the Colored Soldiers and Sailors of the Civil War in Washington D.C., and the Amistad Memorial in New Haven, CT, among others.

In Kentucky, his inspiring, provocative, and expressive works dot the landscape. Come along as we explore the backstory behind this prolific artist and his life’s work that has profoundly shaped the way we view the African American experience.

In the Beginning
Born in Cincinnati, OH in 1947 and a Louisville resident for most of his life, Hamilton is an alum of Shawnee High School, the Louisville School of Art, Spalding College, and the University of Louisville.  Originally pursuing a career as a teacher, he became an apprentice of a local sculptor and the rest, as they say, is history.

Hamilton’s early works dating back to the late 1970s encompassed a wide array of themes and mediums including welded and fabricated metals and mixed media. Yet his later focus on bronze is what has earned him international acclaim.

Danville
In the city of Danville, Hamilton created an impressive statue of President Abraham Lincoln. 

Situated on the campus of Centre College, the 12-foot-tall statue weighing 2,500 pounds depicts Lincoln as a young law student in 1826 as he is holding one of his books.  Inscriptions on the statue feature words spoken by Lincoln, including “I will study and be ready; then maybe the chance will come.”

Frankfort
In Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, you will find several of Hamilton’s works.

On the campus of Kentucky State University is the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial.  It was created to honor this university alum, Civil Rights activist, and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree born in Shelbyville, KY.  

Designed to show Young as the warm and welcoming man he was, the statue portrays him with a tender smile and extended hand.  A campus tradition here is for new students to rub his foot for luck at the beginning of their educational experience, returning to it for additional affections as a sign of good luck before a major exam.

Louisville
The bulk of Hamilton’s work can be found in his longtime hometown - Louisville

Frazier History Museum Bourbon Vistiors Center 03

Frazer History Museum
The Frazier History Museum proudly boasts Hamilton’s “Migration to the West,” a life-size frontier family sculpture illustrating the arduous journey across the early landscape of the United States.

Smoketown
A departure from Hamilton’s recognizable bronze sculptures sits at the heart of one of Louisville’s historic black neighborhoods - Smoketown. In fact, The Smoketown Boxing Legends Monument was created as a joint collaboration with the residents here. 

Co-designed by Hamilton and the late artist Zephra May Miller, the sculpture features two stainless steel boxing gloves that overlap at the center, forming a heart.  Soaring 12 feet tall it stands as an iconic symbol of this neighborhood where boxers and boxing talent like Jimmy Ellis, a young Cassius Clay, and famed instructor Fred Stoner refined their talents.

Image on side of Speed Art Museum

Speed Art Museum
The permanent collection at the Speed Art Museum is home to an untitled work by Hamilton. It is a dramatic bust of an African American soldier in a Union Army uniform.  

It is symbolic in that although Blacks were treated like property and considered second-class citizens, over 200,000 nevertheless enlisted to fight for this country during the Civil War, often enduring much worse assignments and conditions than their white counterparts.

Riverfront Plaza 
In the early 1800s, a slave by the name of York played in integral role in the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition.  

To honor this pioneering African American in his own right, Hamilton created “York, The Belvedere,” the latter part of its name referring to its location in Riverfront Plaza downtown.  For this work Hamilton shows York in a heroic commanding pose, rifle in hand, gazing into the distance.

Abraham Lincoln Sculpture in Louisville

Louisville Waterfront Park
While walking along Louisville Waterfront Park near the banks of the Ohio River you’ll be awestruck by the Abraham Lincoln Memorial.  This 12-foot bronze sculpture of the president, who was born about an hour away in Hodgenville, shows him resting on a beautiful rock with his trademark top hat and several books laying at his side.  

Four, 4-foot by 6-foot inscribed stones offer insights into his connection to Kentucky, the memorial sitting amidst a beautiful amphitheater featuring famous Lincoln quotes.  

More about Ed Hamilton
Following are several ways you can learn more about Hamilton’s life, work, and legacy:

In the “Untold to the Unforgettable” series he shares how, as a very young man growing up in Louisville, two significant events launched what would ultimately become his life-long passion and career.

Bluegrass & Backroads: Ed Hamilton offers an intimate conversation with the artist.

Ed Hamilton’s Lincoln reveals the backstory of the creation of the famous sculpture in Louisville Waterfront Park.

Hamilton’s bio, images of his iconic works, and more can be enjoyed at the Ed Hamilton Studios.