While no other details or records about Rachel Barrett’s life are currently known, her carefully wrought stitches in her 1845 sampler serve as a testament to her existence and shed further light on the education of young Black Nova Scotians during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Samplers are hand-embroidered pictures that feature a variety of stitched designs and motifs such as buildings, alphabets, numbers, verses, and many other types of scenes, both biblical and secular in subject matter. Sampler making was widely practiced by girls of European descent in Nova Scotia, as sewing was considered an important part of female education in the 1800s.
Surviving examples of samplers made by young Black girls are rare, and to date, Rachel’s sampler is the first in Nova Scotia to surface bearing an attribution to the African School and its Black Nova Scotian maker.
On January 4th, 1836, three years after the British Parliament passed an act to abolish slavery in the colonies, the African School opened its doors at 155 Albemarle Street, once situated between Duke and George Streets in Halifax. Though the school was not far from St. Paul’s Church, its location was far from placid. By mid-century, the area was one of the most overcrowded and unsanitary in the city and was home to the poorest of the city’s Black community. Since the children who attended the school would have lived nearby, Rachel most likely was a daughter of the laboring poor, many of whom lived in this area.
Education in Nova Scotia was still primarily a segregated system, with Black and White children attending separate schools. The African School admitted only Black students and had a “rule of attendance” requiring their pupils attend St. Paul’s Church, and Sunday school. Religion featured prominently within the educational curriculum of the day.
The school’s curriculum also involved instruction in various kinds of needlework such as sewing, carding and spinning wool, knitting, and marking. Since the sewing machine was not yet in use, all sewing was done by hand, consequently, these skills were considered essential for women to learn.
Rachel received instruction from a female schoolteacher, Mrs. Jane Gallagher. Mrs. Gallagher would have taught female students a variety of stitches and likely designed the sampler. As the student, it was Rachel’s responsibility to bring the design to life using the methods she had learned. Clearly, she did so very successfully!
Rachel used woolen threads of various colours and thicknesses, and she used the cross-stitch – a stitch commonly associated with samplers – to embroider the majority of the design. For a few areas she chose the more time-consuming method of embroidering over a smaller number of ground threads, thereby achieving an effect of greater detail. She used this approach to delineate the architectural details of the school such as the mullioned windows, the paneled door, and the roof. One cannot help but wonder if this more laborious method held any special significance for Rachel. How was her life affected by the school? How did she feel about her lessons and sewing?
In producing a sampler, the process allowed Rachel to practice her embroidery stitches and her letters while completing a picture meant for display, proving to all that saw it, including prospective employers, her facility with the needle and her ability to read and write.
Rachel also stitched verses from the Royal Anthem. This is an unusual choice of text for a sampler in Nova Scotia. The choice to include it was most likely Mrs. Gallagher’s, and would have met with approval from the school’s administrators. Its inclusion indicates an additional significance for its maker, as it advertised its her as a citizen loyal to the Queen, an image that Black Nova Scotians were actively projecting during the mid-nineteenth century in resistance to the colonial administration’s repeated efforts to remove them from the province.
Although we can never know how Rachel truly felt about stitching and sewing as well as her completed sampler, its existence is a rare testament to her presence and provides a glimpse of what life and learning was like for young Black girls in the 1840s.