I discovered the story of Dave the Potter while doing research for At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times. I didn’t write the story then, not because it didn’t qualify, but because adding it would up the already hefty word count. It is a story that I wanted to tell, however, and here it is:
No one knows exactly when Dave the Potter was born or when he died. No one knows his real last name, what he looked like, if he had a wife or children, or much else about him either. He is known by several names, Dave the Potter being the most common, and what little we know about this man comes from the pottery he made and left behind. Together the hundreds of jars, jugs, pots and pieces of stoneware he created tell a remarkable and daring story.
Dave the Potter was a Black slave who lived in South Carolina in the 1800s. For a time, Dave worked in a pottery factory outside the town of Edgefield. There he learned how to use a potter’s wheel and kiln to transform clay into large and sturdy vessels. At some point, he learned another skill too, one that was forbidden to slaves, one that was dangerous to share publicly. Dave the Potter learned to read and write.
At the time, education of slaves was forbidden. Harsh penalties could be applied to slaves who showed that they could read or write. Dave the Potter ignored the dangers. Around 1840, he starting signing his work, boldly writing ‘Dave’ on the shoulder of some vessels. Later, he added short rhymes or poems.
Some were simple couplets:
Put every bit all between/surely this jar will hold 14
Others were commentaries on slavery:
I wonder where is all my relations/Friendship to all – and every nation.
Still others carried cryptic messages with directions for runaways escaping to the north:
Follow the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper)/For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
Besides their distinctive poetry, most of Dave’s pottery is signed simply ‘Dave’ or bear a horseshoe symbol, slash mark, an X or LM (for Lewis Miles, the man who owned the pottery workshop where Dave worked).
Today, Dave’s pots are collector items that sell for thousands of dollars, and his pottery is part of the Civil War Collection at the Smithsonian. Each handcrafted piece is a bold statement, a remarkable act of defiance.
Dave’s legacy is beautifully explored in Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, an award-winning picture book written by Laban Carrick Hill & illustrated by Bryan Collier.