Enslaved and Freed African-American Potters

This article is a voice for the underrepresented, disenfranchised, oppressed, and forgotten. Two families of enslaved and freed Black potters, unknown to one another, but bound together by clay, tradition, culture, and slavery strive to achieve inclusion, discoveries, ownership, recognition, and empowerment.

Enslaved Potter: David Drake

It was July 2016, and I was browsing through Facebook when I noticed an ad inviting the public to attend the induction ceremony for David Drake, better known as Dave the Slave Potter, into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. During the Antebellum Era, David Drake wrote bible verses and articulate poetry on the surfaces of the pots he made, and signed them by incising the text near the rims of the jars.

I first saw one of Drake’s vessels on the PBS television program, Antiques Roadshow; it was valued at five figures. His pots’ signature horseshoe handles, passionate inscribed poetry, enormous size, and alkaline glaze, along with Drake’s tenacity have mesmerized me ever since.

On August 16, 1857, this enslaved Black potter defied South Carolina law and wrote on a 19-inch greenware pot, “I wonder where is all my relations—Friendship to all and every nation.”

This incredible potter lost one leg during his career. How it happened continues to be a mystery, even today. Some say he got drunk, fell across a railroad track, and was delivered a crucial blow by a train. Others say he was brutally victimized by his owner for writing on his pots. You be the judge. Whatever the circumstance, Drake threw 45-gallon pots (formed with coils) with one leg—an astounding, remarkable accomplishment, even with a partner who helped turn the wheel.¹

1, 2 H. Wilson and Co. Pottery jugs on view at Museum of Texas Stoneware in Huntsville, Texas. Courtesy of George and Suzanne Russell and the Ethician Foundation.

The Journey

My wife and I traveled from Spring Hill, Florida, to Edgefield, South Carolina, to attend this historic induction ceremony. We had no idea how this event would impact our lives (eventually leading to this article). At first glance, Edgefield looked like your typical small Southern town with some residents dressed in ceremonial colonial outfits. Suddenly, we spotted a group of 20 or more Black folks sitting together at tables. We approached, and despite the fact that they did not make eye contact with us, sat beside an older member of the group. As I introduced my wife and myself, this gentleman was very tight lipped about speaking to me. As a matter of fact, the entire group appeared to have been coached by someone to keep silent. Eventually, I discovered that they were a part of one family, and most were from the Washington, D.C., and Maryland area. My wife and I are from Baltimore, Maryland, and upon learning of our roots, they seemed to warm up just a little. Someone happened to mention that they played in the Washington Redskins Band, and I said I was signed as a free agent by the Washington Redskins in 1971. Wow! The muzzles came off, the floodgates opened, and we became honorary members of the family. They began to tell us everything we wanted to know. These folks just happened to be the descendants of David Drake.

Welcoming Committee and Ceremony

After that introduction, we went to the main community hall and pottery studio for the big event. Our reputation must have preceded us because we were greeted like celebrities. We received gifts of t-shirts and were treated with a VIP tour of the facility. An affluent gentleman agreed to give us a brief tour of Edgefield in his truck. We were constantly reminded that Edgefield produced ten governors of South Carolina. We traveled to the sacred Pottersville pottery site where Drake worked, and while there, we saw a groundhog kiln. This charming, knowledgeable, and generous gentleman even took us by his farm and gave us a carton of eggs.

An elaborate presentation proceeded, with several distinguished town leaders, and a performance by The Gullah Geechee Dancers. The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast.² Among the guest presenters was April Hynes, a genealogist researcher from Pennsylvania who found Drake’s relations. Prior to April’s research, the family had no idea about the legacy of David Drake.

3 Photo of David and Linda Mack with descendants of Hiram Wilson (from left to right: David Mack, Linda Mack, Laverne Lewis Britt, and Jan Dixon Britt) pictured at the 20th-annual gala fundraiser to support the H. Wilson Pottery Museum, September 9, 2019.

4 Photo of the descendants of David Drake, taken by David Mack at Drake’s induction into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in Edgefield, South Carolina, July 9, 2016.

Drake Reparations

Hynes and I later collaborated as members of a discussion panel, along with Blaise DePaolo, David MacDonald, and Jim McDowell on inclusion titled “Inclusion: Dave, HBCU & Clay” at the 2018 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A person from the 2018 NCECA audience asked our panel, “Have descendants of David Drake received any reparations?” The answer was no, and I never forgot that question. I never discussed reparations with the family at Edgefield.

Are there past judgments to substantiate awarding reparations to the descendants of David Drake? Yes! Slavery in America was just as cruel, inhumane, and institutionalized as the Holocaust. The difference is that the Holocaust has been formally acknowledged by the world and acts of contrition have been made. The US has acknowledged the injustice of slavery, and the US House of Representatives issued a resolution in 2008 apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow laws, but it was largely symbolic.³ The government as a whole has never officially apologized for the practice and legacy of slavery or offered reparations. Since 1952, Germany has paid approximately $89 billion in reparations for Nazi crimes to primary survivors of the Holocaust.4 In 1988, the US government apologized to Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps during WWII, and President Reagan enacted the Civil Liberties Act to award $20,000 to each camp survivor. In 1998, 44 countries, including the US, signed a treaty, The Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, calling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis during WWII.

What makes reparations to the descendants of David Drake a real possibility? Drake’s signature and markings have been authenticated and documented, and most vessels have been located and appraised. While making reparations may make some collectors, galleries, antiques dealers, or auction houses uncomfortable, it would be possible to carry out due to this documentation.

5 David Mack with the curator at Sebastopol House, which is the location of the H. Wilson Pottery Museum, September 8, 2019.

A Connection Discovered

A few years ago, I came across an amazing story about three enslaved brothers who learned the process of pottery making, and, once emancipated, became the first African Americans to own a business in Texas, named H. Wilson and Co. pottery. The brothers, Wallace, James, and founder Hiram, first started their apprenticeship in 1857 as slaves for the Rev. John McKamie Wilson’s pottery factory, Guadalupe Pottery.5 John M. Wilson had moved with 20 slaves from North Carolina and resettled in Texas, deciding on Capote due to the quality clay deposits. He was not a potter, but hired professional potters to teach the craft to his slaves.6

Following the end of the civil war, the H. Wilson and Co. pottery opened in Capote, Texas, and manufactured clay pots from 1869 until Hiram’s death in 1884.7 Distribution of their pottery reached as far as California, and it’s estimated that over 1000 pots still exist. Their business was so successful that they built a school, church, and cemetery for their community. Along with the three brothers, the pottery staff included potters Andrew Wilson and George Wilson who had also worked at Guadalupe Pottery.8

During my discussion with the Wilson descendants, I learned that they were unaware of their connection to Edgefield Pottery and David Drake. A white potter, Marion Durham, and Black potter, John Chandler, who worked with David Drake at Edgefield, relocated to start their own pottery near Rev. Wilson’s Guadalupe Pottery factory where the three brothers worked.9 Researchers believe Durham and Chandler brought with them the alkaline glaze formula that the brothers would later adopt along with salt glazing.10 After Hiram’s death, Wallace and James worked as potters at the Durham-Chandler-Wilson pottery business (at a different site) until 1903.11

6 H. Wilson Pottery jug on view at the H. Wilson Pottery Museum, Sebastopol House. Courtesy of the Wilson Pottery Foundation.

7 David Drake’s jar, 24 1/4 in. (62 cm) in height, alkaline-glazed stoneware, November 3, 1958. The inscription, adapted from the Book of Revelations reads: “I saw a leopard & a lions face/ then I felt the need—of grace.” Collection of Old Salem Museums & Gardens.

The H. Wilson Pottery Museum opened in 2013 to revitalize the rich heritage left by the brothers. The H. Wilson Pottery Museum is co-located inside The Sebastopol House, a Greek Revival limecrete building built in 1856 by skilled slaves in Seguin, Texas. H. Wilson and Co. pottery wares were clearly marked with a stamp and are highly collectible. Unfortunately, many of the existing vessels were auctioned off to wealthy Texas pottery collectors, and while there are collectors willing to sell, the family cannot afford to recover these treasures for inclusion in their museum. They are looking for benefactors to help fund the purchase of the pottery for the museum.12

The Journey

I recently discovered the Wilson descendants were hosting their 20th-annual Wilson Pottery Foundation Gala at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, Texas, to raise money to fund the museum as well as the foundation’s efforts to preserve the H. Wilson and Co. pottery’s history and legacy. I made a few calls, and finally talked to Jan Dixon Britt, a third-generation granddaughter of the founder, Hiram, and we received an invitation.

It is important to understand that Hiram was a highly educated visionary and an entrepreneur. While at the gala, I talked to a few relatives and they mentioned that Hiram might have attended a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Bishop College, and/or Guadalupe College, which are now defunct. Hiram was a genius to manage the logistics of operating a pottery business as a freed Black potter during the 19th century in Texas.

8 David Drake’s jar, May 18, 1852. Courtesy of Vero Beach Museum of Art, from the collection of Larry and Joan Carlson.

9 Guadalupe Pottery, 1/2-gallon whiskey jar, stoneware, 1857. Photo: The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Courtesy of George and Suzanne Russell and the Ethician Foundation.

The gala wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of the charming, 91-years-young Laverne Lewis Britt, great-great-granddaughter of Hiram and author of a book entitled, In Praise of Hiram Wilson The Story of a 19th Century Guadalupe County Potter, which gives an excellent description of Hiram’s life.13 An educator, researcher, artist, and author, Britt was the recipient of this year’s Gala Potter Award for her contribution to keeping the H. Wilson and Co. pottery legacy alive in Texas history. Britt founded the Wilson Foundation together with other family members, and they have devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to have the original land of the factory in Capote, Texas, preserved by The National Register of Historic Places.

In conclusion, I am planning to work with the descendants of David Drake and H. Wilson to propose that The Turner Inheritance Act of 1619 (TIA) be submitted by the rightful heirs to their congressional representative and recommend that it be established as law. The word “turner” refers to a 19th-century term for potter. This proposed legislation, once passed into law, will return any functional or nonfunctional clay object made by an enslaved or freed Black potter between the years 1619 (the beginning of slavery) and 1884 (the end of H. Wilson and Co. Pottery) to the legal descendants. Institutional facilities such as colleges, universities, museums, and public galleries are exempt from this law. The TIA would become the first law with a “clay content” to recognize and acknowledge the existence of slavery in America. The TIA will help level the playing field, and provide descendants with the resources to empower their ancestors’ legacies. Enslaved and freed Black potters of the 19th century were prosecuted, oppressed, violated, forgotten, and robbed, but they still survived. We have the opportunity to be the first community to publicly condemn slavery, recommend a proactive reform law, and return these treasured heirloom vessels to their rightful descendants.

10 H. Wilson and Co. storage jar at the Museum of Texas Stoneware in Huntsville, Texas. Courtesy of George and Suzanne Russell and the Ethician Foundation.

11 Guadalupe Pottery, 8-gallon tie-rim storage jar, stoneware, 1857. Photo: The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Courtesy of George and Suzanne Russell and the Ethician Foundation.

Slavery is theft—theft of a life, theft of work, theft of any property or produce, theft even of the children a slave might have borne.

—Kevin Bale

the author David F. Mack received his BS from Morgan State University, MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and advance military diploma from the US Army Command and General Staff College. He is a retired K–12 and post-secondary educator, lieutenant colonel, USA, potter, workshop consultant, and exhibition clay activist. He is a member of Florida CraftArt, Military Officers Association of America, NCECA, and the NFL Players Association. Mack’s ancestor, George Johnson, was born into slavery as an illiterate farmer in southern Maryland. Upon his emancipation, he purchased 100+ acres of land and made his mark on a will. In 1999, Mack and his heirs discovered this will and benefited from this inheritance.

References:
1. Koverman, Jill Beute. “The Ceramic Works of David Drake, aka, Dave the Potter or Dave the Slave of Edgefield, South Carolina,” University of South Carolina, Scholar Commons, Staff Publications,McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina-Columbia, SC, 2005.
2. Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission (website), accessed February 2020, https://gullahgeecheecorridor.org/thegullahgeechee.
3. “Transcript: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) Introduces U.S. Apology for Slavery, Jim Crow July 29, 2008” National Public Radio (website), accessed July 10, 2020, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93059465?storyId=93059465.
4. Rising, David. “Germany increases reparations for Holocaust survivors,”The Times of Israel (online), accessed February 2020, www.timesofisrael.com/germany-increases-reparations-for-holocaust-survivors.
5, 6, 7, 11, 12. “History of Wilson Pottery,” Wilson Pottery Foundation (website), accessed February 2020 and July 8, 2020, http://wilsonpotteryfoundation.org/history_of_wilson_pottery.html.
8. Bullock Museum (website), “H. Wilson & Company Pottery: The First African American Business in Texas,” accessed July 8, 2020, www.thestoryoftexas.com/discover/artifacts/wilson-pottery-spotlight-022715.
9. Prahlad, Anand, ed. African American Folklore: An Encyclopedia for Students. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2016.
10. Morgan, Molly. “Archaeological Research at the Wilson-Durham-Chandler Site,” Index of Texas Archaeology: Open Access Gray Literature from the Lone Star State, Vol. 2009, Article 14. Center for Archaeological Studies, Texas State University, 2009. https://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/ita/vol2009/iss1/14.
13. Britt, Laverne Lewis. In Praise of Hiram Wilson: The Story of a 19th Century Guadalupe County Potter. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2005.
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