Stitches in time

Samplers stitched by 19th-century African-American school girl open a door on little-known Baltimore history.

July 01, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

On Dec. 4, 1831, 10-year-old Mary Pets put the last of hundreds and hundreds of elegant stitches in a sampler she made for "her dear parents" while a pupil at the School for Colored Girls of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Mary Pets' sampler is still in the archives of the Oblate Sisters, at their mother house west of Arbutus, the oldest in the Sisters' collection definitely made by one of their students. The only older sampler known to be by an Oblate pupil is in the Maryland Historical Society. The school is now St. Frances Academy, the oldest continuously operating African-American educational institution in the nation. Tonight, the Oblate Sisters celebrate their 175th anniversary with a 6 p.m. Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

African-American samplers these days are rare and valuable. The Oblate Sisters have 15 in their archives, one of the largest collections anywhere. This trove of 19th-century needlework by African-American schoolgirls is rarely exhibited, but Gloria Seaman Allen, an independent historian who lives in Rock Hall in Kent County, has written a definitive article about them in the April issue of The Magazine Antiques.

Allen, Sister Reginald Gerdes, the Oblates' archivist, and Sharon Knecht, project archivist who is helping sort out the Oblates' cache of records and artifacts, gathered in the Gold Dining Room at the mother house recently to examine and talk about the samplers. Much of the archivists' work takes place in this formal dining room with gold chairs where celebrations were held and priests dined in the days when they couldn't eat with the nuns.

Mary Pets' sampler rests in a gray archival box as chaste as the poem on virtue she worked into the needlework scene she created.

"This is a wonderful piece," says Allen, who has written extensively on 18th- and 19th-century textiles in Maryland and Virginia. "What interested me is that it's so much like what you would see in a piece of needlework by a schoolgirl at an affluent, white Baltimore school. Schoolgirls in the 1820s were making numerous samplers in this style, particularly with this eyeglass gate."

Mary embroidered a Georgian-style house with iron palings and the eyeglass gate - which is made up of sections that look like spectacles Ben Franklin might have worn - and a yard with trees and plants and animals, a shepherd with a crook and sheep, and even, Allen suggests, a peacock.

"This goes beyond the level of a simple sampler," she says, "which you think of as alphabets and numbers, so this is much more complicated. This requires quite a bit of skill. It also requires skill on the part of the teacher who probably would have drawn the design for the girls on the linen. The girl would have stitched mainly in cross-stitch, or rice stitch. See how fine the stitches are for the figures and the animals.

"This is a pretty complex design for a 10-year-old. It's not like later ... work where the design is stamped or printed on the canvas. This is much more challenging."

But she points out: "It looks like she didn't finish filling in all of her ground here."

And Mary ran out of space for the last line of her charming verse about virtue. She stitched in the last word, probably err, above the end of the sentence. Age has made the word a little indistinct.

Virtue's the chiefest beauty of the mind

The noblest ornament of human kind.

Virtue's our safeguard and our guiding star.

err.

That stirs up reason when our senses

The verse appears in many samplers just as Mary stitched it, dating back to at least the 18th century.

Mary was a day student at the Oblate school, enrolled in May 1830, Allen says. Somebody unknown, perhaps her mother or father, paid $12 for six academic quarters, plus 37 1/2 cents for books. She made her first communion in June 1831, and in August she was one of five students who received "a `crown' for excellent performance during the year."

The school was essentially French. The Oblate community was formed by a white priest, Jacques Hector Nicholas Joubert de la Muraille, and four African-American women, Elizabeth Clarisse Lange, Elizabeth Balas, Rosine Boegue, all refugees from the Toussaint L'Ouverture revolution that began in St. Domingue, now Haiti, in 1791. The fourth woman, Almaide Duchemin was born in Baltimore. But her mother, Betsy, was born in St. Domingue, where her parents were killed during the Toussaint revolution. Betsy Duchemin took the name of the family that brought her to America.

The women took their religious vows July 2, 1829, and the Oblate sisters became "the first permanent order of African American women in the United States," in Allen's words. And Mother Lange has been proposed for sainthood.

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