The style of woolwork known as Berlin was common throughout the mid-1800s in America and England. What makes this particular piece unique is its creator, Mary J. Greenfield Smith—a free African American woman. Very few African American-made needlework pieces remain from the early 1800s. However, more than a dozen survive from young black women who, like Smith, attended the Oblate Sisters of Providence School in Baltimore.
Bayou Bend is lucky to hold one of these samplers in its collection: a needlework completed by Smith around 1843. The Oblate Sisters, the first permanent Roman Catholic sisterhood created by and for African American women in the United States, taught their students skills that included needlework.
In the 19th century, elegant needlework was associated with accomplished, educated white women. By learning this skill, African American girls reflected their own respectability and refinement. Smith’s needlework shows a family strolling along a pathway to a grand two-story home, a subject matter often used by white women in an earlier period. This sampler encourages us to think about how young African American women sought to define themselves according to white ideas of respectability or against those values.