African-American History, Literally Set in Stone

(From left): Thomas W. Commeraw stoneware jar, Lower East Side, Manhattan, circa 1805. Dave Drake stoneware jar, signed and dated March 19, 1857, Edgefield, SC.
As Black History Month 2013 winds down and we approach our March 2, 2013 Auction of American Stoneware & Redware, I thought this was an opportune time to briefly comment on two of the most important antebellum African-American artisans, who just so happened to be potters: Thomas W. Commeraw and David Drake (sometimes called “Dave the Slave” or “Dave the Potter”). Our March 2 sale is a special one, in that we are privileged to be able to offer two fine jars by these celebrated craftsmen under the umbrella of one auction. (The Commeraw example. The Dave example.)

It may go without saying that Thomas Commeraw is my favorite potter, and I count some of my discoveries about his life–including the day I figured out he was a free black man–as high points of my research life. As far as Dave is concerned, I remember well the day my family and I went to Winterthur for their Dave exhibit back in 2000, and I was bowled over by the massive vessels and, particularly, the couplets. I being a writing major at JHU–and one particularly interested in formal poetry–the synthesis of pottery and poetry in these objects crafted by an enslaved human being really did speak to me.

Thomas Commeraw vertical-handled jar with 'compass' decoration.
The number of African Americans–whether free or enslaved–actually throwing and decorating salt-glazed stoneware during Commeraw’s day (and beyond, for that matter) was apparently a pretty low one. I have seen it claimed that a hidden workforce of enslaved potters was responsible for huge numbers of the vessels that have come down to us, but based on any serious study of the American stoneware industry, this was quite clearly not the case. While free blacks and, where applicable, slaves were certainly employed in many shops, it seems these people were most often performing more menial tasks involved with running a pottery: general odd jobs around the shop, disposing of waste, transporting ware, handling clay, making bricks, or any number of tasks that did not require the intense skill of wheel throwing attained only through long-term training. Commeraw is remarkable in many ways, but purely as an American stoneware potter, he was a true master whom we are able to document as an African American–and one who left behind a huge body of work.

Dave, of course, was not making blue-decorated, salt-glazed stoneware, but was instead working in alkaline glazes in the Southern American tradition. While in the Edgefield District Dave lived under a true slave society–a place where an enslaved workforce was the order of things–he was likewise set apart as a true master of his craft, and one whose work was extremely deft–to be celebrated apart from his extraordinary life story.

Five-gallon signed and dated 'Dave' jar, made at Lewis Miles' manufactory.
These were two very different men, in terms of freedom status, socio-economic status, level of education, and living environment. Their chosen mediums, through which their names were literally forever set in stone, have elevated both to a level of recognition never to be achieved by thousands of others whose work was destined from the outset to decay–or whose products were deemed unworthy of a signature. But it was not this good fortune alone by which we know their names today–it was their vast skill, as well as their ability to persevere and–to the extent possible–break through the strictures of a society that had stacked the deck against them. Deft on the wheel and a gifted businessman, Thomas Commeraw went from an impoverished young man in New York’s slave society to a businessman known throughout the entire country, in direct competition with prominent whites like Clarkson Crolius. Living under a brutal slave system, Dave found his way to literacy and leveraged what was clearly a God-given talent to literally make his mark on the history of American material culture; in a place where reading and writing were not the norm for someone like Dave, he managed to throw beautiful pots and inscribe them with songs that transcended his circumstances.

This is what I find most remarkable about people like Commeraw and Dave. They both happened to share the same skin color, but perseverance and dignity under incredibly difficult circumstances are character traits human beings the world over–regardless of ethnicity or background–can realize in their own lives. The names “Commeraw” and “Dave,” stamped and carved into stoneware clay a very long time ago, are persistent, permanent reminders of this.



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