Telfair Acquires Work by Artist, Poet, Slave
By Shannon Browning-Mullis, Curator of History and Decorative Arts
The Gari Melchers Collectors’ Society met in May to choose its purchases for Telfair’s collection. If you’re not familiar with the Society, this museum member group focuses on collecting by raising funds that allow the museum to acquire works important to our collection. This year, after presentations by our curators, the group generously voted to purchase ALL FIVE of the works presented!
I chose to present this lovely example of the pottery of David Drake. Drake was an enslaved potter in the Edgefield District of South Carolina; he was born around 1801 and often referred to as Dave the Potter or Dave the Slave. Like many enslaved potters, David Drake created thousands of vessels in his life. Unlike any other, he signed hundreds of them and inscribed dozens with poems and verses.
The only literate enslaved potter ever recorded, Drake signed and dated much of his work. A rare literate enslaved man, Dave likely learned to read and write while working at the newspaper operated by his owner’s family. This particular jar notably features Drake’s large, distinctive signature (about two inches in size), and also features the initials of his owner Lewis Miles and the date of production, June 18, 1861.
This jar is particularly significant because it was created, signed, and dated during the Civil War—only a month after the Confederates had opened fire on Fort Sumter—which was a time of great hope and trepidation for enslaved people all over the country. Even during these unsettled times of conflict over slavery, Dave openly defied laws forbidding slaves to read and write and proudly inscribed his name in this work.
David Drake is the full name he chose after the Civil War ended, when he could make choices for himself. Dave lived through considerable change during his roughly 70 years on this Earth. He registered to vote in 1867. Of Dave’s remaining jars, jugs, and churns, approximately 30 are inscribed with verses and 100 are signed.
Other Dave pieces are in collections at museums including the Smithsonian Institution, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta History Center, and Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.
This piece is currently on view at the Jepson Center on the third floor. Come by and take a look!