A highly decorative hand-embroidered tapestry, or sampler, on display at Baltimore’s St. James Episcopal Church

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University


Threads of history

Johns Hopkins' Inheritance Baltimore effort helps return a 19th-century embroidered sampler to a Black Baltimore church in time to celebrate its 200th anniversary

Two hundred years ago, Maryland was a slave state. Baltimore was home to some 4,000 enslaved Black residents and another 10,000 who weren't in bondage but whose status as "free" citizens was tenuous at best. Black Baltimoreans were unable to vote or attend public schools, faced difficulty using the court system, and were subject to a host of laws curtailing their right to assemblage. They couldn't own dogs or possess a range of items, including firearms and liquor.

Undaunted by this racially charged atmosphere, a Black deacon in the Episcopal church named William Levington moved here from Philadelphia in 1824. He founded the first Black Episcopalian church below the Mason-Dixon Line that same year: Baltimore's St. James Episcopal Church. A white lawyer named James Bosley, a member of the city's oldest Episcopal church, Old St. Paul's, donated the land for Levington's church. And in 1832, a few years after Levington had been ordained as the nation's third Black Episcopal priest, he presented Bosley with a highly decorative hand-embroidered tapestry (known as a sampler) as a gesture of gratitude.

"It could be the earliest or the oldest artifact that we know about and it's in great condition. It is important to us as a part of the total efforts at reclamation and reparations, which begin with recovering the history of local communities."
Lawrence Jackson
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History

Fast forward to the 21st century, and St. James continues to look after the spiritual needs of Baltimoreans. The church has moved a few times but has been in its current sanctuary overlooking Lafayette Square since 1932. When the church celebrated its 200th jubilee earlier this month, Levington's beautiful sampler was on hand, and it is now on display with other items related to Levington's era at the Episcopal Diocesan Center of Maryland until July 10. African American artifacts from antebellum Baltimore are extremely rare, and bringing the sampler to Baltimore was a multi-year effort led by Lawrence Jackson, Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History.

"It could be the earliest or the oldest artifact that we know about, and it's in great condition," Jackson says. "It is important to us as a part of the total efforts at reclamation and reparations, which begin with recovering the history of local communities."

Jackson, a native Baltimorean, grew up going to St. James. The efforts to have the historic tapestry on hand during the jubilee festivities was undertaken through Inheritance Baltimore, a three-year-old Hopkins program charged with "using the humanities to transform the relationship between Johns Hopkins University and Black Baltimore." Inheritance Baltimore works to research and chronicle the history of Baltimore's Black community and the racism it has endured, preserve the city's Black archives, and empower local experts in Black history. Program Curatorial Fellow Raynetta Wiggins-Jackson and Community Archives Fellow Jess Douglas assisted Jackson, one of Inheritance Baltimore's founding scholars, in this latest project.

The existence of the historic sampler was known amongst the church's parishioners, Jackson says, but where it has been all these years is a mystery. It was generally assumed to have been in the possession of Bosley's decedents. It came up for auction in 1996 when it was acquired by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and made part of the permanent collection of the DeWitt Wallace Museum. Two years ago, Jackson began sending inquiries to the museum about bringing the sampler to Baltimore in conjunction with jubilee festivities, efforts that included collecting the signatures of St. James parishioners. The foundation ultimately agreed to loan the piece out for a few weeks, and what's more, paid all costs associated with the process. "I would say probably say there are $10,000 in costs connected to insuring, shipping, housing, and exhibiting the sampler," Jackson says. "Their decision to bear the expenses has helped the small congregation of the church a great deal and is an appreciated gesture of goodwill in the larger scheme of lending artifacts where they are most needed."

The needlepoint sampler is roughly square in shape (about 21 inches by 22 inches) and employs silk thread on a linen backing. The dominant image is a basket with decorative, peacock-headed handles brimming with flowers. Additional leaves, vines, and flowers fill the work, which also includes the stitched words: "Worked by William Levington Rector of St. James First African P. E. Church in Baltimore and Respectfully presented to James Bosley Esq. July 4 1832." In addition to the church, Jackson says Levington ran a school that taught the sort of needlework displayed in the sampler. There was also a tradition at the time for Black congregations to engage with supportive white counterparts. "I was surprised to learn that there was such an active interracial community at that time, in the 1820s and 1830s," Jackson says.

The small tapestry, temporarily back in the city where it was first sewn nearly two centuries ago, provides a snapshot of an era and a jumping off point for further historical exploration. "My point of entry to the world of slavery and segregation would be through Malcolm X, who insisted on the value of studying history," Jackson says. "I learned through his writing that history is the foundation necessary to foster an independent political community, or, even just survival."

Jackson hopes that the Hopkins community will visit Levington's artifact at the Episcopal Diocesan center, 4 East University Parkway, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday until July 10.