Needlework verse worked by Mary D'Silver, Philadelphia, 1793. Silk on Linen. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle 2014.33a

The Privilege of Education for All


In 1793, eight-year-old Mary D’Silver, the daughter of free African Americans, worked this needlework picture at the Bray Associates “Negro School” in Philadelphia. The Associates were a London-based Anglican benevolent organization that promoted the education of blacks throughout the British colonies. They established their Philadelphia school in 1758 and enrolled both free and enslaved children.

In early America, the education of African Americans was controversial. Slave owners considered educating a slave to be especially dangerous, as they thought knowledge stirred rebellion. Following the American Revolution, however, access to education became an important demand among free African American communities.

In the late 1700s, there were three schools in Philadelphia where girls like Mary learned the alphabet, spelling, the Testament, and also knitting and needlework. Worked in expensive silk thread, Mary’s picture was likely made to raise funds for the school. It also may have been a gift to a benefactor. It was found in England before being purchased by Winterthur.

Read the poem, A Mouse's Petition, in full