To celebrate Black History Month, OSGF is honoring the foundational work of African American individuals and communities whose contributions are integral to the history, culture, and practice of garden design, landscape architecture, and regenerative agriculture.
Among the greenhouses and residences of Oak Spring, ceramic pots – most often containing some type of plant – are a mainstay. Their ubiquity understating their potential both for harboring life and for telling a story. In celebration of Black History Month, it is perhaps fitting then to look at the life of a great and prolific potter and the story that his fine art left behind.
One hundred years ago, in 1919, a ceramic pot was donated to the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, bearing the name “Dave” and a short inscription. The high quality of the work and the fact that it was signed – unlike most earthenware from the nineteenth century – made it a rarity that invited questions from both historians of South Carolina and art collectors, who slowly began to piece together the life the mysterious potter.
Dave was born sometime around 1801 into slavery on a plantation in either North or South Carolina owned by a man named Harvey Drake. Drake, along with a man named Abner Landrum, operated a pottery business near what is now Edgefield, South Carolina, and where Dave was put to work when he was around seventeen years old. Around this time, Dave learned to read and write, possibly from Landrum, which set Dave apart from many enslaved persons as South Carolina had made it illegal to provide for the literacy of any slave since 1740. After Drake’s death in 1833, Dave was passed among several owners, from Abner Landrum’s son, Rev. John Landrum, to his son Franklin Landrum (who by some accounts treated Dave poorly and as such little work attributable to Dave remains from this time), and finally to Lewis Miles in 1849. The majority of Dave’s work comes from the time of his enslavement to Miles, ending with Dave’s last known piece from 1864. After the Union victory in the Civil War in 1865, Dave became a free man and took the last name “Drake” after his first owner, but little is known of his life after the war. Dave appears in the 1870 US Census but does not in the 1880 Census suggesting that he died sometime in the 1870s. While Dave’s gravesite is unknown, it was a common practice in the black community before the Civil War to place broken pottery over a friend or family member’s grave which would have been a fitting marker for the man who crafted it so expertly.
Dave’s pottery is truly remarkable for a number of reasons. The first being its exceptional quality, being produced with an alkaline glaze that made it waterproof and safe for the storage of foods or liquids. His work is also notable for the size of some of his pieces with his largest pot able to hold forty gallons and standing over two feet tall. The strength needed to shape the clay for ceramics this size would have been exceptional which suggests that Dave was a large man. Furthermore, oral history accounts from the 1930s state that Dave lost one of his legs in a train accident in the 1830s, making his command of the potter’s wheel even more impressive. By far though the most significant aspect of Dave’s pottery are his inscriptions (Dave was the first African-American to sign his pottery in the United States.) that vary from just his name to short poems in rhyming couplets that either reflected on the nature of his existence or simply provided instructions for how to use the earthenware vessel. As mentioned previously, slave literacy had been illegal in South Carolina for one-hundred years when Dave was creating his work, and the increasingly tense years leading up to the Civil War further exacerbated white owner’s fears that the enslaved people under their control could and would be incited to rise up against them, particularly if those enslaved individuals could read and write. Dave’s simple act of signing his name to his outstanding work was therefore both helpful in that people who bought it could request more work from him, increasing his importance at his owner’s kiln, and dangerous in that a literate slave and his or her master were at risk for either a large fine or physical assault. Thankfully, he did sign many of his vessels (Historians have estimated that Dave created around 40,000 works during his life, and his pots that sold for around fifty cents during his life now sell for thousands of dollars.) and in doing so left behind a legacy for himself and his work. That legacy includes a children’s book about Dave, numerous art exhibitions showcasing his work, and permanent displays in museums from South Carolina to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
While white men controlled the means of production for the vast majority of pottery made in the South, it was enslaved African skilled labor that created these vital products and made possible the South’s agrarian economy. Dave’s pottery therefore not only reveals his talent and artistic sensibilities, but also serves as a reminder of all the men and women whose labor and skill was exploited for generations without recognition or payment.
References and Further Reading
Blumberg, Naomi. “Dave the Potter: American Potter and Poet.” Britannica.com. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dave-the-Potter.
“Dave the Potter – Pottersville, Edgefield County, South Carolina.” Sciway.net. Retrieved from https://www.sciway.net/afam/dave-slave-potter.html.
Reif, Rita. “Art/Architecture; In a Slave's Pottery, a Saga of Courage and Beauty.” The New York Times. January 30, 2000. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/30/arts/art-architecture-in-a-slave-s-pottery-a-saga-of-courage-and-beauty.html.
Todd, Leonard. Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave. New York: WW Norton, 2009.
Banner image of one of Dave’s pots. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.