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Exhibition | David Drake: The Greenville Collection

Nov 18, 2017 — Sep 16, 2018

Experience the powerful story of David Drake, an enslaved African-American who worked as a “turner” in several pottery manufacturing facilities in South Carolina’s Edgefield District. Drake, who was known only as “Dave” before 1865, learned to both read and write, dangerous and even illegal skills for a slave to possess. Apparently with his owner’s approval, Drake openly expressed his literacy and his literary skills by inscribing original poems on many of the utilitarian works he created. 

The identities of millions of enslaved African-Americans, whose talents and labor supported the development of American culture, were overlooked or disregarded by recorded history. Through the modest utilitarian wares handcrafted and inscribed by David Drake, at least one remarkable voice remains to speak on behalf of the lives and stories irretrievably lost.

The GCMA is home to the largest institutional collection of pottery vessels by David Drake, including single-handle jugs, storage jars, pitchers, a syrup jug, and a rare butter churn.

The African-American potter, David Drake (circa 1801 to circa 1875), was enslaved for much of his life in Edgefield, South Carolina. Known simply as Dave, he worked as a turner in the potteries for which Edgefield was noted throughout the South. He was probably taught to make pots by his first known owner, Harvey Drake, who with his uncle, Dr. Abner Landrum, opened the area’s first commercial pottery. Located just a mile north of Edgefield Village in a settlement known as Pottersville, the Landrum factory produced utilitarian stoneware that was ideal for storing meats, holding liquids, and pickling vegetables.

Among the pots in the collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art is a storage jar dated 1829, which is one of the earliest examples of Dave’s Pottersville work. Like all his pots, it is coated with a solution of wood ash, sand, and clay, which becomes a hard, glistening alkaline glaze upon firing.

During his youth at Pottersville, Dave learned to read and write. Literacy was unusual for slaves; most slaveholders in South Carolina feared the sense of independence that education could bring to those whom they owned. In fact, the state passed a harsh anti-literacy law in 1834. Despite this, Dave exhibited his literacy in a surprisingly open way—by inscribing original poems on his pots.

Around 1835, Dave was run over by a railroad train, and one of his legs was severed. He survived, but his injury left him unable to move the foot treadle that turns the pottery wheel. He teamed with a slave named Henry, whose arms were crippled, but whose strong legs could drive the wheel for Dave. This collaboration between two damaged men, created some of the finest ware in the Edgefield pottery industry.

Dave used a combination of techniques to make jars, often turning the lower half of the vessel on the wheel, then adding coils of clay round and round the unfinished walls to achieve the width and height he desired. When the Civil War began, many Edgefield slaves were conscripted as workers by the new Confederate government, but Dave, who was sixty at the time, continued making pottery. Northern troops marched into Edgefield in June of 1864, allowing Dave to claim his freedom.

The effort to understand the unusual relationships among Dave, his owners, and the community of Edgefield continues today. The pots in the collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, each created at a different moment in Dave’s life, help us to piece together this story.

Leonard Todd
Author of Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave

Copies of Carolina Clay are available for purchase in The Salon.