Author connects art and history at Cultural Center
By Ramsey Nix
Imagine opening a newspaper one day and discovering your destiny tucked inside an article published in the Arts and Leisure section. That is precisely what happened to Leonard Todd, the award-winning author who spoke about his book “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave” at the Madison Morgan Cultural Center last Thursday night.
Speaking to a fairly large audience, Todd recalled the moment he first heard of the slave potter, Dave, whose pots have become sought-after works of art and history. He said the “New York Times” article indicated that Dave had been owned by pottery manufacturers named John Landrum and Lewis Miles, names the author recognized as his ancestors who had lived in Edgefield, S.C.
“I saw that Dave also lived in Edgefield. With sudden understanding, I realized that my family had owned Dave. That discovery was like finding a door flung wide open on the past,” Todd said. “I was pleased to find that I was related to Dave, one of the South’s great artisans, yet dismayed that slavery was the mechanism that connected us.”
After visiting the exhibit of Dave’s pottery, Todd felt haunted by questions about the man who had created such huge and exquisite vessels– a slave who not only created pots but signed them and often even inscribed them with poetry, at a time when slave literacy was forbidden by law.
So Todd traveled to Edgefield, a town of 4,000 in central South Carolina, close to the Georgia border, and found it to be “an unguarded part of the past.” In a leap of faith, he and his wife left Manhattan and moved to Edgefield, so that Todd could dive into that past in search of Dave.
Studying Dave’s poems, his family letters, and local records for biographical clues, Todd slowly pieced together Dave’s life story. Standing behind the podium in the Cultural Center’s auditorium, the author offered a brief synopsis of that story. In doing so, he connected a piece of art housed in the Cultural Center’s gallery– one of Dave’s inscribed ceramic pots– with the history behind it, imbuing it with significance that no one in the audience will soon forget.
Todd described Dave’s early years working at the pottery and at Abner Landrum’s newspaper, “The Edgefield Hive,” where the slave absorbed what the scholars around him discussed as he cleaned and reset the presses. His first owner, Harvey Drake, had taught his slaves how to read the Bible, so Dave was able to make sense of many of the letters and words he heard and saw at the “Hive.”
Dave’s first-known inscription on a pot he created in 1834 was an impressive, multi-syllabic word, “concatination,” which derives from a Latin word meaning “chain” or “linking together.” “Whether meant as a reference to slavery or not, it’s a stunning word with which to open his conversation with the world,” said Todd.
In spite of the risks, Dave continued to write openly on the surface of his stoneware. Todd said that it has been estimated that Dave probably created 40,000 pots, jugs, pitchers, and churns in his lifetime, but only 175 have been identified, and only 30 of those have inscriptions. Several of them are now on permanent display in the Smithsonian, the Charleston Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Dave first addressed a poem to his “Dearest Miss” soon after John Landrum purchased the slave. Based on his research, Todd concluded that Dave married his “Miss” and had six children with her. But when Landrum died in 1846, the family was divided and sold to different slave owners. Years later, Dave composed a poem that suggested he was still thinking about his lost family. “I wonder where is all my relation/ friendship to all– and to every nation.”
Todd briefly described the Civil War and its effects on Edgefield. He said that Dave took the surname Drake when he registered to vote at the Edgefield Courthouse in 1867, following his emancipation. He speculated that Dave reunited with his family around that same time. In 1868, however, his newly won right to vote was rendered meaningless by marauders who terrorized election officials.
As an unprotected free man, it appears Dave chose to conceal his intelligence, as noted by the 1870 census records that labeled him as illiterate. By 1880, Dave was absent from census rolls altogether. In the end, it appears Dave only truly attained freedom through his immortal works of art.
Todd concluded his talk by confessing that he still has much to learn about Dave. “I feel fresh secrets are in the air. There is much to come,” he said, as the audience erupted in applause.
Published in the February 19, 2009 edition.