Speaking Through Clay

The Remarkable Life and Work of Dave the Potter

Around 1800, an African American man was born into slavery in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Named Dave, he grew up in Pottersville and would go on to become one of twenty-six known African or African American men and women that worked in the Edgefield District’s twelve pottery factories during the antebellum years. Unfettered access to cheap slave labor enabled the profitable, large-scale production of stoneware pottery in the Edgefield District, which supplied durable, low-cost wares to small farms and plantations throughout South Carolina and Georgia. Enslaved turners, as they were called, created utilitarian vessels like jugs, churns, and storage jars out of stoneware and glazed them with an alkaline mixture of wood ash, lime, feldspar, clay, and water. Dave probably learned how to make pottery in his late teens from ceramic entrepreneur Dr. Abner Landrum and Landrum's brother, Amos, and nephew, Harvey Drake.

Dave’s specialty was large storage jars used for food preservation and his are some of the largest made during that period, able to hold up to 40 gallons. In the Edgefield District, only Dave and one other turner, Thomas Chandler, made pots this large, and they were in high demand.

Prior to his emancipation in 1865, Dave was owned by several masters—all related in some capacity—including Harvey Drake, Reuben Drake, Jasper Gibbs, Dr. Abner Landrum and, lastly, Lewis Miles. What set Dave apart from his contemporaries, and cemented his place in history, was his literacy; he was one of a very small percentage of slaves who knew how to read and write. As a part of the architecture of slavery and white supremacy in the south, laws were passed forbidding the literacy instruction of slaves as legislators reasoned that it would lead to insurrection and rebellion. It is surmised by scholars that Dave either learned to read and write on his own, or may have been taught by Dr. Landrum, publisher of two newspapers—South Carolina Republican and The Edgefield Hive—where Dave is said to have worked as a typesetter.

Dave’s specialty was large storage jars used for food preservation and his are some of the largest made during that period, able to hold up to 40 gallons. In the Edgefield District, only Dave and one other turner, Thomas Chandler, made pots this large, and they were in high demand. Dave’s ability was well-known among the Edgefield and Pottersville communities, as an 1859 newspaper article from the Edgefield Advertiser noted: “Do we not still mind how the boys and girls used to think it a fine Saturday frolic to walk to old Pottersville and survey its manufacturing peculiaristics? To watch old DAVE as the clay assumed beneath his magic touch the desired shape of jug, jar, or crock, or pitcher as the case might be?”.

I saw a leopard & a lions face / then I felt, the need of — grace  —Dave, 1858

Dave was a talented potter, but what truly sets his work apart was the fact that he signed many of his pots and, in some cases, included bible quotes, poems, or other short phrases. His inscriptions are the only ones known from any American potter at that time and continue to be the center of a scholarly debate as to their intention, be it subversive, humorous, or insightful. Given the diversity of his inscriptions, it is thought to be some combination of the three. Jill Koverman compiled a list of all of Dave’s known verses and they range from religious (“If you don’t listen at the bible / you will be lost”), poetic (“I saw a leopard & a lions face / then I felt, the need of grace”), patriotic (“The forth of July--is surely come / to blow the fife = and beat the drum”), and cheeky (“Another trick is worst than this / Dearest Miss, spare me a kiss”). 

Detail of the present lot

The present lot was made at Lewis Miles Pottery, where he continued to work during the Civil War and even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It bears his large, script signature, date, slashes and dots indicating storage capacity, and “LM” for his owner, Lewis Miles. In 1865, after the war ended, Dave took the surname Drake and stayed in the Edgefield District and probably continued to work at the Lewis Miles Pottery, though no vessels signed or dated by him after 1864 have been discovered. Scholars assume that Dave died in the 1870s as a “David Drake, turner” is noted in the 1870 US Census, but does not appear in 1880. His first inscribed jar was discovered in 1919 and by 2016 he was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. Dave’s life and work have provided fertile ground for a wealth of scholarship, his multi-faceted story encouraging us to examine the intersectionality of race, slavery, craft, individual agency, and American history. As research continues and more information is uncovered, it is the hope of many that a more complete story of David Drake’s life can be told.