Literacy and slavery: David Drake, Double-handled jug

David Drake (Lewis J. Miles Factory, Horse Creek Valley, Edgefield District, South Carolina), 1840, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 44.13 x 35.24 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

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Key points

  • In the 19th century, the Edgefield District of South Carolina was home to ceramic manufactories that produced large numbers of utilitarian wares out of the abundant local clay. These manufactories, or potteries, were part of the industrial slavery complex in the United States (as opposed to that of agricultural slavery). Enslaved laborers would dig, transport, and prepare clay for the production of commercially sold vessels. Some of the enslaved workers were also trained as potters who built, glazed, and fired vessels.  
  • David Drake was one of these artisans. His work is known today because he signed some of his pieces. He also inscribed short poetic couplets or phrases on a number of his vessels, addressing serious as well as humorous topics.  
  • David Drake was an accomplished potter and writer. His ceramic wares display skill in using a pottery wheel, attention to symmetry and overall form, and sensitivity in the application of alkaline glazes to create rich, glossy surfaces. His poetry reflects a grasp of language that allowed for wit and playfulness as well as poignancy and subtle critique.
  • Anti-literacy laws enacted in South Carolina and throughout the South in the 18th century were instituted specifically to restrict enslaved people. In the early 19th century, the laws became stricter and eventually came to impact both free and enslaved Black people alike as whites grew more and more fearful in the wake of slave uprisings. In this context, David Drake’s choice to publicly display his literacy through writing on his ceramics was a courageous act of defiance.

Go deeper

A face jug from Edgefield county, a video by Smarthistory

Causes of the U.S. Civil War: The problem of picturing slavery, from “The U.S. Civil War in Art” by Smarthistory

Jori Finkel, “The Enslaved Artist Whose Pottery Was an Act of Resistance,” The New York Times, 17 June 2021.

Robert Hunter and Oliver Mueller Heubach, “Visualizing the Stoneware Potteries of William Rogers of Yorktown and Abner Landrum of Pottersville,” Ceramics in America (2019).

Arthur F. Goldberg and James Witkowski, “Beneath his Magic Touch: The Dated Vessels of the African-American Slave Potter Dave,” Ceramics in America (2006).

Jill B. Koverman, I Made This Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter, Dave (McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, 1998).

Leonard Todd, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). (Note: Leonard Todd’s ancestors were among Drake’s enslavers and some scholars have suggested that his book portrays them too sympathetically.)

More to think about

Consider some of the questions that art museums, which have been more rapidly acquiring and displaying vessels by David Drake in recent years, are grappling with:

  • How do we balance appreciation of the artistry of this work with the history that it represents? How do we account for our own biases in exploring this question? 
  • What does it mean for museums to acquire, interpret, and exhibit a work by an enslaved person who did not receive financial compensation for their labor? 
  • Who benefits from the purchase and display of these works in museums? (Note: as of winter, 2022, the living descendants of David Drake have not received or requested any funds from the sale of his works to museums.)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”David Drake,”]

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.