Life as a free African-American girl in the 1820s: History stitched together
Picture a time when arithmetic and language were taught alongside embroidery and needlework. That was the state of affairs in the education of free African-American girls flourishing in 1820s Baltimore, a time when the burgeoning city was negotiating between the values of the more liberal, commercial North and the slavery of the agricultural South.
Mary J. Greenfield Smith, born around 1829, was a pupil at what is now St. Frances Academy, a school founded in 1828 by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first Roman Catholic society for women of African descent in America. There she learned skills beyond what was required of servants, mastering not just hemming and linen-making, but a craft reserved for successful white women: Embroidery.
"Objects such as this by African-American school girls have really just been identified in the past decade," curator Michael K. Brown says. "This is really a completely new discipline that was not known earlier."
Smith had a mean stitch and a playful artistic vision. Her Sampler of circa 1843 — made from wool, silk and linen — didn't dwell on standard antebellum period patterns. She sewed more trees, water fountains, playful dogs, twirling birds and colorful flower pots reminiscent of 18th century needlework landscapes.
Bright coppers, vibrant greens and effervescent turquoises spring forth from the beige canvas, depicting a leisure stroll through manicured gardens, all in a 15½ by 25-inch joyful tapestry.
Sampler now adorns a hallway on the second floor of Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens — the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's home of American decorative arts. The piece is a new acquisition, roughly one of 25 per year that appends to Bayou Bend's impressive growing opus.
"Objects such as this by African American school girls have really just been identified in the past decade," curator Michael K. Brown says. "This is really a completely new discipline that was not known earlier. It gives us a window into the life of free African-Americans."
In his search for textiles of similar provenance, only seven surfaced in other museum collections. Smith's Sampler is a rare beauty.
It took a village to maneuver through its acquisition. Once a price was negotiated with guidance from field experts, three committees had to sign off on the final purchase agreement. Brown felt the embroidery mirrored Houston's demographic make up and melting pot spirit, rendering this investment critical to Bayou Bend's initiative to display items aligned the city's ethos.
"It's really in the textiles — specifically quilts and needlework — where one finds women's greatest contributions to decorative arts," he says.
The condition of the piece can best be observed by removing it from its frame and comparing the intensity of color from the back, which has been protected from light and the elements, to the front. While there are some minor differences and evidence of damage by a hungry clothes moth, the piece has prevailed in remarkable health. Sampler is Bayou Bend's newest pride and joy, also the envy of visiting curators, collectors and conservators.
In the CultureMap video interview (above), I chat with Brown to learn about what Smith's work means and how the tapestry fits in the larger scope of the collection's decorative art holdings.