New York Times Article Leads to Special Book
"SOLD!" called the auctioneer in 2004 as he accepted a bid of $135,000 for an Edgefield, S.C., stoneware "poem jar" made by "Dave the Slave."
"SOLD!" cried the auctioneer in 1847 as he accepted a bid of $800 for Dave, the flesh and blood man -- the slave -- who had made that jar and inscribed the poem.
During his lifetime, Dave made over 40,000 stoneware jugs and pots of varying sizes that sold for 10 cents. His astounding "ceramic monuments" -- 40-gallon twin jars both made in one day in 1859, each 80 inches in circumference and almost as tall as a man, now stand in the Charleston Museum. Sixty of Dave's other known utilitarian pots and jars, the "Tupperware of the time," are in the Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in North Carolina, Atlanta's High Museum, Detroit's renowned African-American Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as in private collections across the country.
What makes Dave the Slave's pieces unique is more than the beautiful alkaline glaze, a hallmark of Southern folk pottery, or their massive size and symmetry.
Dave did what no other slave artist dared to do: he wrote his name on his work and inscribed his vessels with original poetic verses, a dangerous thing to do at a time in South Carolina when it was considered a "major crime" for a slave to be caught with pencil and paper.
On Friday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, Leonard Todd will present his book, "Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave." The book is, however, more than the story of the most outstanding African-American potter of his time, it is also the story of Todd's own South Carolina ancestors who actually owned the slave they called Dave.
Todd made this discovery after reading an article about Dave in The New York Times in 2000.
"Dave had six documented owners during his lifetime," Todd says, "all of whom were related to each other and consequently to me by blood or by marriage. I'm directly descended from Dave's two principal owners." Lewis Miles, Dave's owner during his most productive years in the 1850s, was Todd's great-great-grandfather.
Todd, who was born in Greenville, S.C., grew up like many white Southerners with the knowledge, in a generic way, that somehow their ancestors might have owned slaves.
"I was faced with a real person with a real name and a real story," Todd says. "It was not something I could ignore anymore. My ancestors owned Dave."
Todd left his home in Manhattan and went to Delaware to see the University of South Carolina McKissick Museum's traveling exhibition, "I Made This JarThe Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter, Dave."
"One poem took my breath away," Todd recalls: "'Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/wher the oven bakes & the pot biles.' These words, so direct yet so enigmatic, opened my eyes in a way that nothing had before: My great-great-grandfather owned this man. He had paid for him, and he could punish him or reward him or sell him as it suited. I was confronted here with a real person who had 'belonged' to my family. It was at once amazing and saddening. I was very moved to know that these were objects that my ancestors had a hand in. And that this artist, who was a slave, but a great artist, had made them under the direction of my ancestors.
"Being connected to this whole story makes me the perfect person to write it, but I also had to be very careful to not give my ancestors a free ride and at the same time to not judge them too harshly. It's been a real adventure not only in discovering the life of this wonderful artist, but also in discovering the story of my family at the same time."
Todd moved to Edgefield where he researched his "quest book" for almost eight years.
"By searching through my family records, pottery archives, old documents, letters, and newspaper articles preserved in archives across Southern Carolina, and through Dave's own inscriptions, I have been able to create a picture of his vibrant life," says Todd.
Although a number of slaves had written about life in bondage after they escaped from it, Dave had done so while he was still a slave.
"He created a unique journal on his jars," Todd says. "It was unheard of for a slave potter to take spiritual ownership of these pots. The poems express his words and feelings. He refers to people that he loves and things that have happened to him, so of course his story becomes important in studying his art."
Dave was "country born" (in America, not Africa) in approximately 1801, probably in Edgefield County, S.C., where he spent his entire life. During the next 65 years, Dave stepped on the auction block half-a-dozen times and was bought by men who all owned pottery factories where he became the most famous "turner" in the Edgefield area, in spite of losing his leg in a train accident when he was 35.
Dave learned to read as did a small percentage of other slaves, but more importantly, he learned to write, inscribing poetic verses and his name on many of his pots, an audacious act for a slave.
After the Civil War, freeman Dave Drake, the name he took for himself, worked occasionally as a turner for $5 a month, a wage that wouldn't have allowed him to buy a piece of his own pottery. When he died in the late 1870s, his family likely marked his grave with pieces of broken crockery, a custom in much of the black south at that time.
Dave Drake went to his rest no longer "Dave the Slave," never again to hear the cry of "SOLD!"
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