African-American Stoneware: A Brief Tour

Our upcoming July 20, 2019 auction provides a great opportunity to highlight the work of our nation’s most prominent historic potters of African descent, along with other very notable African-American related stoneware rarely offered for public sale.

Thomas Commeraw Jug, Impressed w/ the Five-Line Mark: “COMMERAW’S / STONEWARE / CORLEARS / HOOK / N. YORK”
A three-gallon stoneware jug made by the free African-American potter of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Thomas Commeraw, is one of comparatively few that bear the entirety of his most famous maker’s marks: “COMMERAW’S / STONEWARE / CORLEARS / HOOK / N. YORK.” Of wonderful large size, the three pairs of stamped crescents at the top seem to intentionally denote the gallon size. Commeraw was not just an important stoneware potter who happened to be African-American, producing his ware on Cherry Street near the modern Williamsburg Bridge; he was a very politically-active member of what was the first generation of free blacks living in the newly-formed United States of America. Because of this, the actions of Commeraw and his compatriots in federal era Manhattan were extremely consequential for how people of African descent would be treated by both their government and fellow white citizens moving forward. This was an era full of hope for the black communities in northern cities, where the rhetoric of the Revolution had set the stage, potentially, for the abolition of slavery and true political equality. People like Commeraw had something that approached political equality with whites, but in practice they were second-class citizens who at best were customarily excluded from key parts of political life, and at worst were targeted by local and state laws applicable only to them, including ones that forced them to document their freedom just to vote.

Thomas Downing
But the aforementioned time of hope that Commeraw lived through would unfortunately give way to a period of even more advanced racism, as class struggles with white immigrants came on and the spirit of liberty that lingered beyond the Revolution faded away. It was in this atmosphere that Thomas Downing, perhaps New York City’s most famous oysterman, found himself. Born in 1791, Downing was born to a formerly enslaved couple in Accomack County, on the eastern shore of Virginia. Making his way to New York in 1819, Downing was just arriving as Commeraw was preparing to leave for the West Coast of Africa. The life he lived in New York until his death in 1866 was rife with overt racism, some incidents of which are preserved in the historical record: In September 1855,

Our venerable friend, Thomas Downing, who for more than thirty years has sold the best oysters in the city at No. 3 & 5 Broad street, and whose establishment has long been recognised as one of our municipal institutions, last evening experienced an indignity at the hands of some of the conductors of the Sixth avenue Railroad … . [T]he old man had occasion to go up town with a colored woman, and they took a seat together in the 6th avenue cars. They had not long occupied their seats before they were requested to leave the cars. Mr. Downing refused to go, and his resolute resistance enlisted the sympathy of the passengers, many of whom knew him, and were indignant at the attempt to exclude him from the public conveyance of a company enjoying a right of way in which every citizen has an equal interest.

It is extremely remarkable that this experience by Downing happened almost 100 years to the day before Rosa Parks’–missing it by a little more than two months.

On both a micro, interpersonal scale and on a large, national scale, people of African descent like Downing were always aware that their sense of freedom was more or less precarious. In 1860, Downing found himself in financial straits and, standing before the judge, “objected to being sworn … . Downing informed the Judge that he refused to take the oath, because, by the Dred Scott decision, he was deprived of all rights of a citizen, and was held to be a mere chattel.” That landmark decision handed down by the Supreme Court a few years before had, of course, declared exactly what Downing said it did, and it would take the American Civil War and subsequent constitutional amendments to wipe it away.

This July’s auction features one of only three known jars for Thomas Downing’s oyster shop, impressed “T. DOWNING / PICKLED OYSTERS / NO*5 BROAD ST / NEW YORK,” and made by Dennis McLees or Thomas Boone and Sons in Brooklyn, circa 1840. (More information on Downing’s remarkable life is available in the auction write-up here.)

Signed “Dave” 1858 Stoneware Jar
Thomas Commeraw and Thomas Downing were living in a major northern city where the trajectory of freedom and equal rights for all African Americans, despite extreme difficulties and large bumps along the way, tracked upward. In the antebellum American South, naturally, blacks existed in a true slave society where the emancipation that came during the War had always been in serious doubt. The most famous enslaved American potter was, of course, Dave (of Edgefield District, South Carolina), who worked under multiple people who claimed ownership of him and who, once freed by the events of the 1860’s, took the name David Drake. Dave was born about 1800 and his earliest dated pot (unsigned but attributable to him) carries the year 1821; his last bear war-time dates of 1864. So we have a large body of work spanning four decades with which to study Dave, and the three Dave pots in this auction were made in three of those: A wonderfully-potted, important attributed Dave jug with an early date is inscribed “April 18th 1831” and was made by him at Harvey and Reuben Drake’s Pottersville shop, meaning it is a rare product of the brief, four-year window that the Pottersville Pottery was operated by the Drake brothers–Harvey being Dave’s owner for the first 32 years of his life. Another attributed pot bears the date “October 13th. 1843” and was made by Dave at Reverend John Landrum’s Pottery at Horse Creek Valley; few Dave pots pre-date the 1849-1865 time period, during which he was working at Lewis Miles’ Stoney Bluff Manufactory. Finally, a newly-discovered signed “Dave” pot is inscribed with an August 28, 1858 date; to our knowledge no previously-known Dave examples were made in August 1858. (A couple of important face vessels in our July 2019 auction were also made in Edgefield–a rarely-seen face cup and wonderful face jug–the jug having been made at the aforementioned Lewis Miles’ shop at which Dave was the key potter.)

HUGH SMITH & CO. Stoneware Jar attributed to Enslaved Potter, Thomas Valentine
The free black communities in American cities prior to the Civil War were instrumental in lobbying for equal rights and were constantly appealing to white society with the message that they were every bit as entitled to the promises of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as people who happened to wear a different shade of skin. In Alexandria, Virginia–part of the District of Columbia until 1846–what was squarely a town whose economy and lifestyle rested upon slave labor also had a vibrant free African-American community, of which Thomas Valentine, a potter at the famous Wilkes Street Pottery, was a part. An important jar we will be selling in our July 20, 2019 auction bears an impressed letter “T” and very rare maker’s mark of the shop of “HUGH SMITH & CO.” (This mark was used while the shop was owned by merchant Hugh Smith, but run by potter, John Swann, 1822-1825.) That the “T” on the bottom establishes Thomas Valentine as the potter who made this jar might seem dubious, but it actually does so with confidence. The potters at the long-lived Wilkes Street Shop seem quick to have used initials on the bottoms of vessels to indicate the maker, and the only known potter to fit the bill for “T” is Valentine. A great illustration of this is the case of David Jarbour, another African-American potter on Wilkes Street who left behind an awesome, large jar now in the collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. This jar, inscribed on the bottom, “1830 / Alexa / Maid By D. Jarbour,” appears to be inscribed in the same hand as that which carved the “D” initial on the bottom of this jar.

Thomas Valentine was an enslaved man being owned by both Swann and subsequently Smith, not freed until 1829–meaning he was enslaved at the time the jar was made. Interestingly, both he and Jarbour appear as signatories on an 1831 petition to the Mayor of Alexandria, decrying Nat Turner’s rebellion and essentially pledging allegiance to the town and their fellow citizens–showing just the kind of outreach American black communities made to their white neighbors attempting to curry the favor they hoped would result in the legal protections they sought.

Rich Williams, Greenville County, South Carolina, Stoneware Potter
Over the course of the Reconstruction Era and beyond, enslaved potters and their families planted or took up work at Southern stoneware shops at least as far west as Texas. Rich Williams is the earliest known photographed African-American potter, working in the Gowensville area of Greenville County, South Carolina, around the turn of the 20th century. A newly-surfaced Rich Williams stoneware jar being sold in this auction bears a particularly rare version of his maker’s mark (“RICH WILLIAMS”) instead of the usually-seen, simple “WILLIAMS.”

A relatively recent surge in interest in African-American potters and their invaluable contribution to the craft of American stoneware has really enriched our study of period American ceramics, and it is rare that so many examples of this type of material are assembled together under one roof. We are privileged to be able to handle these objects and hope they, in turn, help spark further research and interest in these men and the lives they lived.

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