A Rare African American Schoolgirl Needlework and Its Poetic Petition

Education has always been important for American children, but it is often difficult to document through traditional historical documents, especially for girls or African Americans. One way to accomplish this is by studying surviving needlework. Winterthur has many schoolgirl samplers and needlework pictures in its collection; however, examples by African American schoolgirls are extremely rare. Winterthur was able to acquire two 19th-century needlework pictures and a late 18th-century verse sampler, which is believed to be the earliest yet identified.

Our first acquisition is a fascinating canvaswork picture dated July 3, 1846, worked by Rachel Ann Lee, who attended the Sisters of Providence School in Baltimore, Maryland. Rachel Ann’s mother worked as a laundress, which was a very low-paying job, but felt it was important to pay for her daughter’s education. The frame is original to the picture, which must have been proudly displayed in the family home.

Needlework picture, Rachel Ann Lee, Baltimore, Maryland, 1846. Museum purchase with funds drawn from the Centenary Fund 2009.13

Needlework picture, Rachel Ann Lee, Baltimore, Maryland, 1846. Museum purchase with funds drawn from the Centenary Fund
2009.13

The second 19th-century example was made by Olevia Rebecca Parker at the Lombard Street School, a public school that began to educate children from the African American community in 1828. Education was clearly very important to Olevia. She married a dentist, and their oldest son, James Brister, was the first African American to earn a degree (in dentistry) from the University of Pennsylvania. Her daughter Olivia became a teacher.

Needlework picture, Olevia Rebecca Parker, Philadelphia, 1852. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle 2009.12.1

Needlework picture, Olevia Rebecca Parker, Philadelphia, 1852. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle 2009.12.1

Like the 19th-century examples, the 18th-century sampler made by Mary D’Silver identifies its maker, her school, and the date. This plain marking sampler reads: “The well-taught philosophic mind / To all compassion gives; / Casts round the world an equal eye, / And feels for each that lives. / Wrought by Mary D’Silver / In the 8th Year of her Age Negro / School Philadelphia 1793.” Found in England, we believe that this was not a traditional sampler, but a piece of needlework gifted to or purchased by supporters of the school she attended, which was funded by the Associates of Dr. Bray, a British-based Anglican organization that supported education for people of color around the world.

Sampler, Mary D’Silver, Philadelphia, 1793. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle 2014.33

Sampler, Mary D’Silver, Philadelphia, 1793. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle
2014.33

The inspiration for D’Silver’s sampler was English poet Anna Laetitia (Aikin) Barbauld’s Poems, which was first published in 1773. D’Silver’s sampler includes the seventh stanza from Barbauld’s “The Mouse’s Petition.” While it was common practice for schoolgirls to embroider verses on their samplers, the edit made to this verse is notable, as was the choice of the verse itself.

Barbauld wrote “The Mouse’s Petition” as a plea to her scientist friend Joseph Priestley, whom she had witnessed doing experiments on animals in his laboratory. While Barbauld intended no real criticism of her friend (a point she made clear in a note in later editions of her book), her poem, which gave voice to the laboratory mouse, is recognized as an early work in which the rights of animals are considered and the conflict between these rights and the interests of scientific discovery are acknowledged.

While we cannot know exactly what D’Silver’s (or her teacher’s) intention was in selecting this verse for the sampler, we can surmise that the speaker’s request for compassion and justice is one that resonated with African Americans and the abolitionist cause. Perhaps what is most meaningful about the use of this verse on D’Silver’s sampler is the change that was made to the final line of the stanza. As Amy Finkel of M. Finkel & Daughter pointed out in her research, “Interestingly, young Mary D’Silver, or her teacher, changed one meaningful word in the final line of Barbauld’s stanza. Here, ‘And feels for all that lives’ becomes more personal and individual as ‘And feels for each that lives.’”

Despite her own freedom, Mary D’Silver (or at least her teacher) made a plea in this sampler for the freedom and rights of others by quoting Barbauld’s mouse in this rare surviving 18th-century African American schoolgirl’s work.

To see other examples of Winterthur’s rich collection, see our online database http://museumcollection.winterthur.org/

Post by Kim Collison, Exhibitions and Collections Coordinator, in collaboration with Linda Eaton, John L. & Marjorie P. McGraw Director of Collections & Senior Curator of Textiles

For further reading:

Bellanca, Mary Ellen. “Science, Animal Sympathy, and Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition.’” Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.1 (Fall, 2003): 47–67.

Weldon, Amy. “’The Common Gifts of Heaven’: Animal Rights and Moral Education in Anna Letitia Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition’ and ‘The Caterpillar.’” Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text 8 (June 2002).

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