“Amy is a treasure,” Linda Eaton, curator of textiles at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, said to me referring to Amy Finkel, the Philadelphia needlework dealer, who recently brought a rare Berlin work picture stitched by a black American schoolgirl to her attention. Knowing that Eaton has long felt that Winterthur’s collection does not adequately represent the cultural diversity that existed in this country in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, she was the first person Finkel approached with the needlework, stitched by Olevia Rebecca Parker in Philadelphia. “I was thrilled,” says Eaton, “and the entire acquisitions committee was behind it 100 per cent.” Doubling her delight, at the same time Bill and Joyce Subjack of Neverbird Antiques in Surry, Virginia, needlework specialists and collectors themselves, offered her a Berlin work picture stitched by Rachel Ann Lee at the Oblate Sisters of Providence School for Colored Girls in Baltimore in 1846, and Winterthur acquired it as well.
It is hard to overestate the significance of these needlework pictures. The huge body of scholarship about American schoolgirl needlework documents the many teachers and schools that offered instruction in this “accomplishment” to white girls, but only in recent years have scholars unearthed evidence of a small number of schools where decorative needlework was also taught to black girls. The best known were in Baltimore, most particularly the schools run by the Oblates, well documented by Gloria Seaman Allen in the pages of this magazine in April 2004 (where Rachel Lee’s work was illustrated and discussed) and in her book, A Maryland Sampling: Girlhood Embroidery, 1738-1860 (2007). Besides the surviving examples from the Baltimore schools, between them Eaton and Finkel could think of only a handful: one sampler in a private collection worked by a black girl at a school in Connecticut, a very plain marking sampler done by a black girl in Ohio, and one worked at the Convent of Mount Carmel established in New Orleans in 1838 to educate young girls of color. Allen reminded me of one other that she had footnoted in her 2004 article-a marking sampler in the Subjacks’ collection, worked at a school in Williamsburgh (now part of Brooklyn), New York, probably in the 1850s. And Kathleen Staples and Kimberly Ivey have found that southern black girls received needlework instruction, though no documented examples have been identified.
With the discovery of Olevia Parker’s work, the Lombard Street School in Philadelphia can be added to the list of schools where decorative needlework was taught to blacks. Finkel’s research revealed that the school originally educated white children, but about 1828 they were transferred to a new building and African Americans were enrolled at the old building on Sixth and Lombard—actually just five short blocks from Finkel’s present shop.
Olevia Parker was about fourteen when she stitched the picture, the sentimental subject of which is typical of the Berlin work patterns popular in the middle of the nineteenth century. Both Eaton and Allen remarked on the fact that here, as in surviving examples from the Oblate schools, the teachers clearly did not adapt the pattern to reflect their students’ skin color—another factor complicating the identification of needlework by black girls.
By 1860 Olevia had married Joseph Brister, an African American dentist in Philadelphia. Their eldest son, James (1858-1916), was the first black to earn a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1881, a dentist like his father. (Today the university’s James Brister Society rewards students of color for their leadership and achievements.)
How valuable is an African American provenance to such a work? Neither Eaton nor Finkel would reveal the price paid, but Berlin work pictures signed and dated by white girls can be found for under a thousand dollars. By contrast, one stitched by the African American Samaria Gaines at the Oblates’ school in 1858 and now in the Baltimore Museum of Art, was listed in Finkel’s Spring 2004 catalogue for twenty-four thousand dollars.
Image: Berlin work picture by Olevia Rebecca Parker (later Mrs. Joseph Brister; c. 1838-c. 1882), Lombard Street School, Philadelphia, 1852. Winterthur Museum, Delaware.