From Dave’s “Silent Period”…

The following is from Buddy Wingard, who, with Mark Albertin, created the award-winning documentary, DISCOVERING DAVE. He first posted it on April 1, 2014, on FaceBook.


When Mark Albertin and I first sat down and discussed attempting a documentary about Dave and the context of his life, one of our goals was to create a vehicle that would generate discussion and maybe help to bring to light new insights of his life and story. On February 20th, I was giving a presentation on Dave to the Lexington County Library, when in walked a couple with a stoneware jar. Mr. Michael Blackwell and Mrs. Suedella Rhoten asked me to look at it and quickly I took note it was a strap handled jar – rare – one handle missing, about three or four gallons, and was signed “Dave.” J.R. Fennell of the Lexington County Historical Museum was also there and we both were duly impressed by this new “discovery”. As the time drew closer for me to start my talk, everyone began to sit down but still chattered excitedly about seeing the vessel. Attention was called and I began my slide show. About half-way through I reach the point where I talk about Dave and the “Silent Period” – roughly 1843 to 1849 when there are no dated or signed pots. Was this because of Dave’s owners at the time (the Landrums ) not wanting him to write on the pots due to their strict beliefs about slaves rights or maybe believing they could also be punished for allowing him to write? I start discussing this point when my brain began to reel – “When was your pot dated?” I blurt out. The couple responds “1845.” In had walked a signed Dave dated during the “Silent Period”, an amazing artifact, and one with new insight into Dave’s life during those six years. At this point of my presentation I become totally discombobulated, thrilled, and a bit overwhelmed! So, with that, a new “Dave” has come forward dated August 16th, 1845 and Mark and I are pretty excited that the film was the springboard for the couple to share their incredible heirloom. The film is doing what we had hoped – helping to further the knowledge of Dave and his story and allowing him to continue speaking to us from across the years.


“With clay in my veins…”

I was a guest speaker at the 48th annual NCECA Conference, held this year in Milwaukee. The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts is a dynamic and influential organization that celebrates the creative potential of clay. Almost 4,500 of its members were at the conference, nearly all of them potters.

I spoke on Dave, the Edgefield slave potter, who is the subject of my book, CAROLINA CLAY. There was a great deal of interest in the crowd for Dave, his work, and his compelling story. This was, in part, because the conference opened with a tempting mention of him: the charismatic artist and composer, Theaster Gates, began his keynote address by singing about Dave in a deep, gospel-tinged voice—

From the manufactories of South Carolina…

I was born…

With clay in my veins…

There was applause even before he finished. When I spoke with Gates later in the conference, he put his arm around my shoulder and thanked me for keeping the conversation on Dave going. I thanked him, as well.

IMG_2167_2So many of the potters who were at the four-day gathering stopped me at one time or another to talk about Dave or about Edgefield pottery or about the history of slavery in the South. One of them, David Mack from Tampa, showed me a photograph of a clay sculpture he had made of Dave. This “portrait,” as he called it, was in three pieces—the head, the body, and a fully rounded jar, which lifted out of the body. To my mind, it showed how much of himself Dave put into his work. It reminded me of a couplet that he incised on one of his pots in 1834—

oh the moon + the stars

hard work to make big Jars.

Like David Mack, the other ceramic artists I met at the conference were warm and imaginative. They were also enormously talented. This was evident from the potting demonstrations they gave and from the exhibits of their work—varied and beautiful ceramic pieces that I found quite moving. There were works on display by students and by long acknowledged masters. Some of the most breathtaking are shown below.

The executive director of NCECA, Joshua Green, captured my reaction to these pieces with a quote from the writings of the novelist, Donna Tartt: And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?



Dave in Milwaukee

I’ve been invited to give a talk on David Drake at the 48th Annual NCECA Conference, to be held this year in Milwaukee. Potters, artists, and educators from all over the country will be at the four-day meeting, convened by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. In advance of the event, the organizers asked me to post a short article about Dave on their blog. This is what I wrote:


The Southern slave potter, Dave, described his masterful storage vessels as “Great & Noble.” Today, collectors and museum directors all over the country join in that praise. His pots, which he turned from about 1820 to about 1870, are especially valued for the fact that he signed them and for the rhymed inscriptions he sometimes added to them. Such a daring display of letters was unheard of for a man in bondage in antebellum South Carolina, where slave literacy had always been frowned upon; in 1834, when Dave was 33, it officially became a crime to teach a slave to read or write.

One group of my ancestors lived in South Carolina, most of them in the little town of Edgefield, where Dave also lived and worked. They were the Landrums and the Mileses, pottery entrepreneurs. When, by chance, I discovered that they had owned Dave for much of his life, I was stunned—pleased to find that I was linked to one of the South’s great artisans, yet dismayed that slavery was the mechanism that connected us. Like many white Americans with Southern roots, I had grown up with a suspicion that my ancestors had been slaveholders. It was a disturbing thought, and I had chosen not to face it directly. I couldn’t do that anymore.

I set out to uncover all I could about this amazing man. How had he managed to rise above the limitations of slavery and become a creative artist in his own right? What were the men like who held him in bondage? Though his owners were surprisingly close to me in my family tree—my grandfather was born in Edgefield during Dave’s lifetime—I determined to put aside family loyalty and look clearly at whatever I found, no matter how painful it might prove to be.

Even so, I was not prepared for the story that I uncovered: The world in which Dave turned his now famous vessels was a mix of violence, trust, punishment, creativity, and political strife. The contrasts were startling. On one awful occasion, a female pottery slave who worked with Dave hanged herself after being whipped by their owner, Franklin Landrum, a member of my family. Yet, when Dave and another of my ancestors, Lewis Miles, disagreed about the strength of a handle he had just fashioned, Dave felt secure enough to wittily comment on the incident in an inscription: “Lm says this handle will crack.”

Dave wrote about this complex, black-white life on many others of his pots. He issued warnings (“If you dont repent, you will be, lost”); he courted the woman he loved (“Dearest miss, spare me a Kiss”); and, most surprisingly to us, he confirmed his status as a slave (“Dave belongs to Mr. Miles”). These inscriptions, in themselves, do not appear to be words of protest, but the very act of writing them in the midst of repression formed a resounding cry. Dave’s fearless self-assertion ensured that he would be remembered long after those who controlled him were forgotten.

By searching through my family papers, through documents preserved in archives across South Carolina, and through Dave’s own inscriptions, I strove to create a picture of Dave’s vibrant life in a book, Carolina Clay. Still, I’m aware that a great distance continues to separate me from him. It is an inevitable distance, encountered by every writer who tries to recreate the life of someone else. As the historian, Simon Schama, has said, “We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”

In truth, that distance seems insurmountable for a white, 21st-century man trying to understand the life of a 19th-century black slave. How does one bridge that gap? The answer for me, for all of us, may be to concentrate not on our differences but on what we have in common. Perhaps the love of pottery is a place to start.

Leonard Todd on the steps of the Edgefield County Courthouse, with two pots by Dave. (photo by Brook Facey)

Leonard Todd is the author of Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave (W. W. Norton). His book was one of four finalists for The Marfield Prize: The National Award for Arts Writing. He also won the Writing Award from the South Carolina Center for the Book. He has spoken about Dave on National Public Radio, at the Smithsonian Institution, and at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. More information about him and about Dave Drake is at and at Photo by Brook Facey.

Jill Beute Koverman

jill kovermanJill Koverman, Chief Curator of Collections at the McKissick Museum in Columbia, South Carolina, died last week. She was an extraordinary woman, scholar, and friend. She had two young sons and a loving husband and an ongoing passion for a man named Dave. This was David Drake, of course, the Southern slave potter whose work she brought to the attention of the country in 1998.

It was then that she curated an exhibition at the McKissick that was the first ever devoted to Dave’s work. Called “I made this jar . . . ,” it was a large assembly of his wondrous and varied pots, many signed and inscribed with original poems, items unique in Southern history. The show traveled to three other locations around the country. When, in 2000, it arrived at Winterthur, the great museum near Wilmington, Delaware, The New York Times published a major story on it, on Dave, and on Jill.

In the piece, Jill sent out a call to action: “Does anything else survive,” she asked, “to tell us more about this amazing man?”

I was a New Yorker at that time. I had never heard of Dave or his work. In the final paragraphs of the article, however, I discovered that my Southern ancestors, residents of the small South Carolina town of Edgefield, had been Dave’s owners. I was stunned.

Jill met with me at Winterthur and we examined Dave’s pots and poems together. Though she had discovered that he was born in approximately 1801 and that he had taken the surname “Drake” after freedom came, we lamented that more information was not available about his life. Now filled with the same enthusiasm that propelled her, I searched my family papers—a full sack of them were from the 1800s—and, to my delight, found mentions of Dave. Among the papers were photographs of some of the men whose potteries he had worked in. I located pieces of china that had belonged to their wives.

I had been a writer most of my adult life. Though I had published several books, I had never quite found a subject that was truly close to my heart. While I was waiting for a subway train one day, it suddenly came to me that I might write the story of Dave and my ancestors. I proposed a book to W. W. Norton, the New York publisher, and my proposal was accepted. “What wonderful news!” Jill wrote me. I moved from New York to Edgefield, where I began to research Dave’s life.

Throughout the six years that I worked on the book, Jill was a constant source of encouragement. She gave me her list of all known pots by Dave, pots she had held in her hands, measured, photographed. She told me of all the known inscriptions by Dave. She made the McKissick files fully available. She was generous in every way.

When Norton published my book in 2008, Jill organized a reception at the McKissick to give it a proper sendoff. After the party, she told me that she hoped to some day expand Dave’s story into a study of the other slave potters who had worked in Edgefield when he did.

We only saw each other from time to time over the years that followed, but we talked on the telephone with some regularity. I would call her with terrible news of what was happening to a pottery site that lacked protection. She would counsel me about what to do with my family papers. We would worry together about friends who were going through difficult times. Once, she came to Edgefield for a pottery event. It was clear that she loved being in the town where Dave and the other potters she was so interested in had worked. I said, “You should be living here, Jill.” She smiled and said, “Just offer me a job . . . !”

I saw Jill at a symposium on Face Jugs, which was held at the Columbia Museum of Art in December of last year. She was across the lobby at the welcoming reception. She looked thin but elated. She waved to me. When I managed to get through the crowd, I couldn’t find her. I wasn’t concerned, because I mistakenly thought that, crowded conference or not, we’d surely meet again.

Last week, I heard from her one more time. It was a notification on Facebook that she must have sent out to all her friends. It said, “Jill Koverman loves you.”

I missed her memorial service. I think she would have approved of my reason for not being there. I was in Augusta, Georgia, that evening, speaking on David Drake to a society of scholars whose work is focused on the South. I told them about my friend, Jill, about her unfailing enthusiasm and generosity, and about how she had sent out that call, many years ago, now, that changed the course of my life.

Meeting the Man Who Played Dave

IMG_0653I recently met Teddy Palmer at a party in Aiken, South Carolina. During the course of our chat, we discovered that we had a mutual friend: I had written a biography of the great Southern artisan, Dave the Potter, and Teddy had played Dave in a recent film. My book is Carolina Clay; his film is Horse Creek Valley: A Tale Worth the Telling. It’s a fine documentary created by Christi and Jamie Koelker of Storyline Media.

I had tried to step into Dave’s shoes when I was writing about him. Here, at the party, I was talking to someone who had dared to take on his persona for the P1161628_2_2cameras. I said how difficult I had found it to reach across the decades and try to do such a thing. I think we decided it was ultimately impossible—but something you had to attempt. That’s what creative people do.

I asked Teddy to send me any pictures he might have of himself as Dave. He forwarded me these wonderful shots taken on location. The other actor is Juanita Palmer, Teddy’s wife, who played Dave’s wife.

Horse Creek Valley is a one-hour broadcast documentary, which covers 12,000 years of history in one extraordinary South Carolina valley. It is a 2012 Telly Award winner. Your can see clips from it at

Though I’m interviewed in the film, in the section on the Horse Creek potteries, I had never met Teddy until that night at the party. He has a new fan!P1161644

Days of History

I’VE JUST SPENT TWO DAYS IMMERSED IN SOUTH CAROLINA HISTORY. I know that’s not everyone’s ideal weekend, but for me—writer, amateur historian, born in Carolina—it was matchless.

I was a guest of the Confederation of South Carolina Local Historical Societies at its annual Landmark & Preservation Conference. The conference was held in North Augusta, which is located midway along the border between South Carolina and Georgia. Brenda Baratto, president of the North Augusta Historical Society and organizer of the conference, had invited me to speak on the slave potter, Dave, and sign copies of Carolina Clay, my biography of him.

Dave was an ideal subject for the conference because he lived in Edgefield County, North Augusta’s close neighbor. In my talk, I traced his turbulent life, which spanned the years from 1801 until the mid-1870s. Though he was free after the Civil War and a registered voter, he and the other former slaves of Edgefield faced new challenges that were in some ways as daunting as those they had known under slavery. Through it all, he produced his pots, many of which are now in America’s finest museums.

Tony Riley, a collector of Edgefield pottery, and Gary Dexter, who turns pots using traditional methods, joined me in fielding questions from the audience. Several in attendance at the lecture were also experts: Jim Witkowski, pottery collector; Tony Carr, collector and repairer; Harvey Teal, historian and writer. They added to the extraordinary store of knowledge about Edgefield pottery in the room.

If none of us knew the answer, we could turn to Dave, himself: we had two of his vessels on hand—a pitcher and a storage jar—to refer to for technical details. Tony Riley is shown here with the storage jar. We had pots made by others, as well. Tony Carr brought in a type of face vessel that I had never seen before. Look closely at this photograph and you’ll see that it is a coin bank. It appears to have a ruffled collar, like that of a clown.

Because there were presentations throughout the first day of the conference, I was able to sit in on several of the other talks, which was a real pleasure. I heard April Hynes and Dr. Mark Newell give an evocative program on the slave ship, Wanderer, which brought an illegal cargo of Africans to the shores of South Carolina in 1858. A number of slaves from the ship were ferried up the Savannah River to a plantation near present-day North Augusta. April, a genealogist, has located the descendants of many of the Wanderer slaves, while Mark, an archaeologist, has been able to shed new light on the ceramic face vessels thought to have been made by slaves from the ship. Details about their research are at

In another session, Christi Koelker, a filmmaker, gave a lively overview of how to film the story of your own family history. She and her husband, Jamie, have documented many aspects of South Carolina history, including the recent archaeological dig at the kiln that Dave used at Pottersville, just outside Edgefield. Dramatic findings from that dig are at

I also enjoyed a presentation by Jeanne McDaniel and Elliott Levy on The Hampton Terrace Hotel, which once stood on the crest of the hill that North Augusta is built on. With a view out over the Savannah River and into Georgia, the hotel was the largest wooden structure in the world when it was built in 1902. Its glory days were few, for it burned to the ground in 1916. Jeanne tells the story in her book, North Augusta: James U. Jackson’s Dream.

At the conference banquet that evening, Tonya Browder, Director of the Tompkins Library in Edgefield, was presented the Alexander S. Salley Professional Service Award, for advancing the cause of history in South Carolina. Tonya helped me throughout my research for Carolina Clay, as she has helped so many others over the years with projects small and large. She richly deserves this important award. To find out about the extensive genealogical resources of the Tompkins Library, go to

On the second and final day of the conference, I visited sites related to the 1876 incident known as The Hamburg Massacre. In the course of that tragic, politically complex event, eight men were killed—seven blacks and one white. The killings took place in the now-vanished town of Hamburg, which stood on the banks of the Savannah River close to what is today North Augusta. Historians Wayne O’Bryant and Peter Hughes led the tour, which was quite moving. Wayne’s book on the killings and the impact of the episode on South Carolina history is scheduled to appear soon. Its title is The Exhumation of Hamburg Incident.

There were other tours and talks that I couldn’t fit into the time available. I made sure to be present, however, at the final event of the conference: lunch at the 1950s-modern Sno-Cap Drive-In, another piece of local history, this one still sleek and shining!

For information about the Confederation and advance news of next year’s conference, consult

Dave at the Met


A jug by the Southern slave potter, Dave, is currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The jug is in the American Wing of the museum, as part of a show that inaugurates the wing’s spectacular new galleries.

The design of the 26 renovated spaces is a reinterpretation of 19th-century Beaux-Arts galleries, complete with coved ceilings and skylights. On display are many of the icons of American art: Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington; Max Schmitt in a Single Scull by Thomas Eakins; and that painting of all paintings, Washington Crossing the Delaware. In re-hanging this enormous work by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, the museum commissioned a gilded frame based on one shown in a recently discovered 1864 photograph of the painting. You can see the painting in its new setting at the top of this page.

Amid all that grandeur, in an area devoted to ceramics, is Dave’s jug, just over a foot tall. A perfect example of the jug form—ovoid body, abbreviated neck, short strap handle—it is inscribed in Dave’s hand. In the topmost line of the inscription, he has written “Lm,” for “Lewis Miles,” the pottery entrepreneur in Edgefield, South Carolina, who was his owner at the time. On the middle line is the date, October 26, 1853. Below that is his signature, “Dave.” As far as we know, this was his only name until he became a free man after the Civil War. Then, he took the surname, “Drake,” which was the name of his first known owner.

The jug is one of 15 masterworks on long-term loan to the Met from the American Folk Art Museum, also in New York. When I told Stacy Hollander, Senior Curator at the Folk Art Museum, that I was writing this post, she made sure I received an image of “the wonderful jug by Dave Drake,” as she described it. Take a close look at the photograph. I think you’ll second her choice of the word “wonderful.” How stylish it appears, with its elegant combination of colors!

Nineteenth-century Southern folk pottery was almost always coated with an alkaline glaze, which is a mixture of wood ash, sand, clay, and water. The  glaze was developed in the 1810s by the Edgefield pottery manufacturer, Dr. Abner Landrum. It was simple to use: a worker had only to dip a raw, sun-dried pot into a tub of the mixture before firing it. In most examples of Edgefield ware the glaze is a single, mottled color—usually brown or tan or pale green—depending on the individual potter’s firing techniques. Here, though, Dave’s jug is glazed in two distinctly different colors. How did he achieve this?

To answer this question, I turned to Steve Ferrell, the gifted potter who lives in Edgefield and carries on the traditions that began in Dave’s day. Steve had been a great help to me when I was writing Carolina Clay, my book on Dave, and I felt sure he could answer any question I might have. I drove into town from my house outside Edgefield, parked my truck on Courthouse Square, and walked a short block to his studio, Old Edgefield Pottery.

Steve is generally quite robust, but on this occasion he looked a little pale. He was getting over a strained back, an ailment not uncommon among potters, though, truth be told, he had been lifting a box of books, not a load of clay, when he injured himself. As soon as I showed him the photograph that the museum had sent me, he perked up considerably. “This jug was owned by Frank Fenenga,” he said, “and then by Paul and Sally Hawkins. They gave it to the American Folk Art Museum.” He reached for Jill Koverman’s ground-breaking catalog of Dave’s work, I made this jar…, and opened it to page 26, where there was an image of the pot. Jill used the signed 1853 jug to suggest that an almost identical but unsigned jug of 1821 was also by Dave, turned when he was just 20.

“But Steve,” I said, going straight to my main question, “how did he get the pale wash over the shoulders of the jug? Was he using two colors of glaze?”

Steve gave me a quick, definitive answer. “No,” he said, “the same alkaline glaze mixture created both colors.” The secret, he explained, was that Dave or another pottery worker dipped the jug deeply into the glaze mixture and then immediately afterwards ladled additional glaze over the upper part. The area covered by one layer of glaze would, upon firing, achieve a brownish-tan color; the portion covered by two layers would react differently in the heat of the kiln, becoming cream-colored. Therefore, when it emerged from the furnace, the pot bore a handsome, highly individual, two-toned look: cream over tan.

The coloring of the double-thick glaze is very subtle. In its thickest areas it is an opaque yellowish-white. Where it thins out, it develops a sky-blue tinge, known as “rutile blue.” A combination of titanium oxide and iron oxide forms this blue and concentrates it in tiny, intense specks. Steve showed me other pots in his studio that exhibit hints of it. “Potters love it,” he said. “You always hear them talking about ‘rutile blue.’”

Steve showed me a shard that he had recently found at the site of one of the 19th-century Edgefield potteries, now all gone. It is a portion of the base of a pot, with a thick glaze buildup inside it. The glaze has turned the color of cream. Around its edge, where it thins, is rutile blue. Steve holds the shard in the photo at left.

As Steve sees it, partially double coating Dave’s jug was probably not done for decorative purposes. More likely, it was performed simply to make sure the surface of the pot was fully covered. “Still,” he says, “I’m sure they were happy with it!” He adds that double coating alone was not responsible for the final effect. The right kiln conditions were also needed: a “reduction firing,” in which the atmosphere of the kiln becomes starved of oxygen. (Cinda Baldwin has more to say about the effects of reduction firing on this jug in her survey of South Carolina folk pottery, Great and Noble Jar. Her comments and a photo of the pot are on page 147. She also adds more names to the list of collectors who have owned it: Tony and Marie Shank.)

So, a simple container that once held water or perhaps whiskey has led to many questions. Dave began the process in October of 1853 by creating something beautiful and mysterious. Early collectors saved it for us. Two great museums have made it available for us to wonder at. A contemporary Edgefield potter has helped us understand it.

It makes me happy to know that Dave’s jug now shares pride of place with the artworks that chronicle our history. When you’re next in New York, go to the Met, make your way to the American Wing, study Dave’s signature, so carefully inscribed on the shoulder of his jug. Then, look at Washington and his men in their silently gliding boat. What an opportunity to sense the whole of American life, from the small, human detail to the pageant of a nation in the making.

Many thanks to these contributors:

A friend in Manhattan first sent word that Dave’s work was on exhibit at the Metropolitan. This alert was followed by similar information in a post from Keely Lewis on Facebook at the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program (SRARP) group page. Stacy Hollander and Courtney Wagner at the American Folk Art Museum supplied me with an excellent photograph of the jug, taken by John Parnell. Kraig Smith and Annie Matson at the Met verified the location of the piece and sent me handsome photographs of the American Wing. And Steve Ferrell explained it all.

This post was updated on April 18, 2012.

After an earlier version of this post appeared, I heard from the Edgefield-area potter, Gary Dexter, who has had experience with the same glazing situation that created the unusual look of Dave’s jug. Here’s what he said: “As a potter following the traditional method of making alkaline glazed stoneware, my glaze tub often gets very low before I finish dipping a load of pots. On larger pieces, they simply end up with bare portions. I then up-end it and dip the bare portion. Sometimes, I’ll ladle some glaze over the bare spots, which is what happened to this particular jug. Making more glaze is a time-consuming task and Dave was just stretching out what he had in the bottom of the tub. If Dave had re-dipped the top portion, the result would be a clean, sharp overlapped band and not this very drippy and runny overcoat running the circumference of the pot.”

Thanks very much, Gary, for sharing your experience with us. Gary’s website address is

The American Folk Art Museum has a new show at its galleries at 1865 Broadway, just across from Lincoln Center. It is entitled “Jubilation/Rumination: Life, Real and Imagined.” It will be up through September 2, 2012.

A New Verse from Dave the Potter: “Hard Work”

The subject of my book, Carolina Clay, is the extraordinary 19th-century potter known as Dave. He occupies a place in the history of Southern folk pottery that is close to legendary. He is revered for the quality of the pots that he made, for the size of these containers, some of which could hold up to 40 gallons, and for the inscriptions, often rhyming couplets, that he sometimes wrote on them. More than 30 of his verses survive.

Once in a great while, a pot bearing a “new” message from Dave is discovered. That recently happened, causing phone calls and e-mails to shoot throughout the Southern pottery world. Because the location of the pot was not made known and its owner preferred to remain anonymous, I thought I had no chance of seeing it. To my delight, however, the owner has allowed it to be exhibited temporarily at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

The State Museum is a repository of wonderful artifacts, each of which helps tell the complex, sometimes crazy story of life in the state that in 1860, shortly after Secession, James Pettigru characterized as “too small for a republic, too large for an insane asylum.” Dave’s work perfectly conveys his portion of this idiosyncratic story: he lived at a time when it was forbidden by state law to teach slaves to read or to write, yet he managed to publish his inner thoughts in the most public way available to him—on the sides of his pots.

Slaves had sought the ability to read ever since the earliest days of the Atlantic slave trade. They yearned to “make the book talk,” as they saw their owners do. It would seem a simple thing for masters to share the knowledge of reading with their servants, but slaveholders understood that even the smallest education could enable a slave to make decisions on his own, becoming in the process less a slave and more a danger to the slave system. Masters consequently went to great lengths to keep those they owned in ignorance.

In the early decades of the 19th century, however, some highly religious slave owners chose a different path. According to Drake family members who still live in South Carolina, Dave’s owner, Harvey Drake, made the decision to give basic reading instruction to him and others among his slaves. He took this step so that they could read the Bible and find salvation. These simple lessons may have changed Dave’s religious life; they certainly changed his intellectual life. He could now decipher puzzling letters, words, even sentences, an ability denied to what historians believe was 95% of Southern slaves.

He also learned to write. He probably had to acquire this skill on his own, by hook or by crook, for writing was considered much more dangerous by slave masters than reading. A slave with this ability could fashion himself a pass, for example, and escape from the state.

Dave may have become interested in poetry during a brief period in his early life when he was put to work at a newspaper, called the Edgefield Hive. Perhaps he was inspired by the weekly verses that ran in the paper. This much we can be sure of: from almost his earliest known inscriptions, he was creating rhymes and organizing his words in poetic forms.

A few days ago, I drove to Columbia from my home in Edgefield, South Carolina, which is also where Dave lived. It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to get there. The museum is housed in an enormous 19th-century brick warehouse. The building somehow managed to survive the inferno that in 1865 destroyed most of the rest of the capital. The fire was set (take your choice here) by invading Yankees or by retreating Confederates or by accident.

There’s something to capture the attention on each level of the museum’s vast, open interior. As I climbed the stairs, I saw a life-sized model of the railroad train known as “The Best Friend of Charleston.” The train was constructed to run on what was once the longest rail line in the world, starting in Charleston and extending across the state to Hamburg, a little town on the Savannah River opposite Augusta, Georgia. The successor to this engine was probably the one that ran over Dave in about 1835, severing his leg from his body.

On the level above that, almost within sight of the train, is the display case that holds Dave’s pot. The ovoid shaped jar, just over 19 inches tall, was used for food storage. Covered with a hard, alkaline glaze, it has a tan color, which is mottled with brown and gray. The glaze is partly missing from the rim on one side and from the base of the opposite side, the two places where Dave held the jar as he dipped it into the glazing solution. What seems to have been a hard life has chipped off both its lug handles. It is dated 22 August 1834.

Here’s the couplet that Dave wrote on it:

oh the moon + the stars 

hard work to make big Jars

These new words fascinate me. It’s wonderful to hear Dave talking about the actual process of making a pot. Though he speaks about his finished containers in several other instances—he calls one of his largest pieces, “Great & Noble Jar”—this is the only known occasion in which he describes the backbreaking nature of the whole undertaking: “hard work,” he calls it. On the 22nd of August in the potting shed of his owners, Reuben Drake and Jasper Gibbs, it must have been steamingly hot work, as well.

In admiring Dave’s creations, it’s easy to forget that they are the product of a slave system. He wasn’t making them out of choice. Turning pots was the job he had been assigned and he did it day in and day out for much of his long life. Others worked in the fields or in the houses of their owners; because Dave’s owners were pottery manufacturers, he made pots.

Dave begins this couplet with a reference to the skies above: “oh the moon and the stars.” I can’t help but wonder if this first line might actually be an exclamation, similar to, “My stars!” or “Heavens above!”  In that case, the verse might be saying something akin to, “Great day! What a hard way to make a living!”  Not a complaint, more a statement of unavoidable fact. Surely, it would have been a relief for Dave to speak out like that, even if silently.

Then again, he might not have had that in mind at all. You never know with Dave. For every interpretation of one of his verses, there are half a dozen others waiting to be argued for. (The Chief Curator of Art at the State Museum, Paul Matheny, reads this inscription differently from the way I do. I’ll be telling about my conversation with him in my next posting.)

The couplet is written in a somewhat cramped script, very carefully incised into the clay, perhaps reflecting how new all this was to him. It runs between the two handles on one side of the jar. The date is inscribed once following the verse and again on the opposite side. Verses composed later in Dave’s life are often written in a more confident, even florid hand.

The jar sits in its case beside another poem pot by Dave, one that is part of the State Museum’s permanent collection. The two jars are almost twins. This one, however, is in near-perfect condition, with both of its lug handles still in place. It is inscribed with Dave’s oldest known verse, dated 12 July 1834, written only six weeks before the one I’ve just described. It reads:

put every bit all between

surely this Jar will hold 14

Dave’s message would have been perfectly clear to Edgefieldians in 1834: Pack this 14-gallon jar tightly with fresh meat. It is, in effect, a short set of instructions on how best to use the pot.

Because erasing mistakes is not practical when writing on damp clay, Dave’s corrections are permanent parts of his poems. In the July verse, he inadvertently left out the word “bit” when he wrote it and came back to add it above the line. In the August verse, he spelled “moon” with only one “o,” then carefully added another one just above it. I’ve always found original manuscripts—with infelicities scratched through and words added in the margins—to be more interesting than the final, perfect product. With computers, of course, all history of the struggle that goes into forming a writer’s paragraphs is lost. Dave’s process, mistakes and all, has been preserved for us in clay.

These two poems were written just a few months before the South Carolina General Assembly, fearing bloody uprisings similar to the one led by literate Virginia slave Nat Turner, passed the harshest anti-slave-literacy law in the state’s history. The law specified that a white person convicted of teaching a slave to read or write could be sent to jail; a slave convicted of teaching another slave could be given up to fifty lashes with a whip. Encouraged by this extreme position, some owners took it upon themselves to repress the budding desire for knowledge that they sensed in their slaves. They promised severe beatings to any slave found with a book or with pencil and paper. Some threatened to cut off the forefinger of any slave who learned to write.

Dave continued to write openly on his pots during this dangerous period. This could have been because his owners, as far as we can tell, were less rigid than the “fire-eaters,” who sponsored the legislation. However, I tend to think it was the result of a strategy that Dave, himself, developed: he welcomed visitors at his wheel; he entertained and informed; he produced handsome jars, used impressive words—and apparently charmed everyone around him. Even the editor of the Edgefield Advertiser noted what he called “an intelligent twinkle in his eye.” If Dave did all this as a conscious defense against those who might use the law against him, he succeeded brilliantly. By hiding nothing, he seems to have been able to freely continue the conversation—word after incised word—that he had started with the world.

Dave’s new poem pot will be on display at the State Museum in Columbia for the remainder of 2012. There’s also an excellent exhibition there called “Tangible History: South Carolina Stoneware from the Holcombe Family Collection.” It’s the first extensive showing of the pottery collected by the Holcombes—mother, father, and two sons. It contains a number of fine examples of Edgefield pottery, including a wonderful, signed jar by Dave.

The South Carolina State Museum is located at 301 Gervais Street in Columbia. For opening hours and other information, visit While in Columbia, you’ll find more fine examples of South Carolina folk pottery at the McKissick Museum. It’s at 816 Bull Street on the campus of the University of South Carolina. (Check the museum’s renovation schedule at

The Verses of Dave the Potter

The verses written by the 19th-century potter, David Drake, are some of the most unusual in Southern literature. He wrote them on his pots, inscribing them on the damp clay with a sharp stick; he wrote them while he was in slavery; and, he wrote them when it was against the law in his home state of South Carolina for a slave to be taught to read or to write. They are among the very few words written openly by Southern blacks while they were enslaved.

I list the more than thirty known inscriptions by Dave in my book, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave (W. W. Norton). I describe them as “his conversation with the world.” Dave has just picked up that conversation again, for a pot bearing a previously unknown verse by him has recently come to light.

The new verse is a wonderful addition to his work. I’ll be telling you what he has to say in my first posting on this site, which will be coming up soon. In the meantime, visit my website to read other verses by Dave and see pictures of his work:

Let me know what you think!