Faces of Black Excellence

Meet one-legged artist Dave and his large-sized historic pots that could hold 40 gallons of water in 1800s

Ceramic pots usually do not catch the attention of a receiver if they are being offered as a gift. But, this was not the case in 1919 when a ceramic pot was presented to the Charleston Museum in South Carolina. It had a short inscription “Dave”.

The inscription was not the only striking feature that engaged the attention of historians and art curators but the quality that was invested in the work in addition to the embossment of a trademark. When the puzzle was unraveled, the ceramic pot was traced to ‘Dave the Potter’ who was born sometime in 1801 on a plantation in either North or South Carolina and supervised by Harvey Drake, according to Oak Spring Garden Foundation.

Dave learned the ropes of the trade from Drake and Abner Landrum who run a pottery business in what has become known as Edgefield in South Carolina. Dave had learned to read and write possibly from Landrum even before it became legal for enslaved persons to acquire literacy in 1740.

When Drake passed away in 1833, Dave had no choice but to serve different owners, from Landrum’s son, Rev. John Landrum, to his son, Frank Landrum, and finally with Lewis Miles in 1849. Dave’s significant work of pottery, according to historical accounts, was during his stay with Miles from 1864.

When Dave attained his freedom after the Union victory in the Civil War in 1865, he added the last name of Drake to his identity. He is presumed to have died somewhere around the 1870s because his name was not captured in the U.S. census of 1865.

Historians say while the origins of where Dave was buried remain obscure, it would have been befitting for broken pottery to have been placed over his gravesite by a friend or family as is the tradition for a man who mastered the art of ceramic pots.

Dave’s pottery was acclaimed because of the combination of quality invested in it to produce alkaline glaze which made it suitable to store water and food. He is known to have produced large-sized ceramic pots with the capacity to hold 40 gallons of water, standing over two feet tall. Historians argue that Dave must be a man of sheer size and height to produce such an exemplary work of art to hold such volumes of water.

Oral history posits that he lost one of his legs in a train accident but it did not become a liability. It gave him an added advantage over his pottery wheel to craft one of the most impressive ceramic pots at the time. He is noted to be the first African American to sign his ceramic pots with his name. He is also known to provide instructions on the pottery to give users insight into how to use his product.

Stephen Nartey

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