Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Hidden Stories/Human Lives: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 17th Biennial Symposium, October 15-17, 2020. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/

doi: 10.32873/unl.dc.tsasp.0086


Copyright © 2020 Kelli Racine Coles


Embroideries stitched by girls at schools for Black children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are rare finds in the antiques world. The few embroideries likely stitched by Black schoolgirls that do survive often offer historical evidence in the form of the names of their makers’ schools stitched onto their embroideries. Yet there is little scholarship on these embroideries or the education these schoolgirls were pursuing while creating their samplers. In scholarship using material culture as primary evidence, these embroideries provide valuable clues about the lives of Black girls in northern cities during the antebellum period. My work examines the materiality, textual content, and aesthetics of design of these needlework pieces, as well as the context in which they were stitched. Previous scholars have automatically attributed the girls’ needlework skills to their European schools or influences. My work considers the needlework skills likely taught to the girls by their family and kinfolk. Moving outside of the home, I examine school and organizational records to understand the motivation and methodology for teaching children of color in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after the Revolutionary War. These embroideries reveal young girls who were learning and being taught how to be young Black girls, and all that entails in terms of the performance of domesticity and republicanism. The quiet activism revealed in their embroideries continued with the formation of their families and the support they gave their communities. “Reading” needlework embroideries offers invaluable insight into the early history of Black children’s formal education before Emancipation and illuminates the formation of Black American girlhood identities in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States. On a larger scale, these embroideries represent yet another form of Black American cultural production to be added to the long list of contributions people of the African diaspora have made to the Americas.