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Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina

Updated: Mar 4


I knew that the landmark exhibition “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta would be inspiring. However, it provided a depth of understanding, a connection and discovery that would have remained untapped were it not for the power and spirit of the exhibition. It far exceeded my expectations.

 

There, presented before me was more than just the artistic vessels carved of Black potters during the 1800s from the American South. It was a whole generation of my ancestor’s stories carved out of clay, with whispers from their painstaking work echoing in my ear, and etched in my mind and heart forever.

 

That’s the phenomenon and truth about art…its message, power and resilience deems it – Historic. Immortal. Limitless.

The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina were members of what is now termed industrial slavery, a system in which adults and children had to work in unison with one another to perform the arduous tasks of mining, cutting trees to burn in kilns to prepare the clay, to creating vast quantities of wares and designing and glazing the vessels. These vessels were essential to the lucrative plantation economy and by the 1840s the Black potters were producing tens of thousands of vessels each year.



During a time when literacy for Blacks was prohibited, the potters were not only shaping functional vessels essential for food preparation and storage, they were etching their names and messages onto their creations. This of course, was a tremendous risk, which could have resulted in a sentence of death for the potters. Of course, most white enslavers and factory owners marked the wares with their names, thereby claiming the expertise of the enslaved. Still, some Black potters were allowed to sell the vessels they created, and the few that were granted this opportunity used their earnings to buy their freedom and the freedom of family members.



Some of the enslaved markers, [slaves were not supplied gravestones] of the Edgefield potters have been identified and the HIGH has respectfully highlighted more than 100 of their names in the exhibition. One of Edgefield’s best known artist of the time was Dave – later recorded as Dave Drake. Dave was a poet and he was fierce – boldly signing and inscribing poetry and messages on many of his functional vessels – some of which held up to 40 gallons.


 The writings above are replicated from Dave's original inscriptions


Living conditions for the innovative enslaved Black potters were inhumane. Their lives were filled with agony and despair - with Dave inscribing the following on one of his vessels:


nineteen days before Christmas - Eve -

Lots of people after its over, how they will grieve

December 6, 1858/Dave


Dave's inscription acknowledged the imminent loss that many of the enslaved would experience for 50 years before emancipation and the end of the civil war, as it was common practice to "hire out" or outright sell enslaved people on New Years Day, which separated African American family members with no hope of communicating or reuniting. That the enslaved Black potters were able to endure such unconscionable hopelessness, cruelty and suffering, while still creating wares that demonstrate knowledge, skill and experience, speaks to their unwavering desire to not only exist, but to survive with purpose - to create a generational legacy for their offspring.


The exhibit features many of Dave’s masterpieces and includes a video featuring Dave’s newly discovered descendants Pauline Baker, Priscilla Carolina, Daisy Whitner, and John Williams as they reflect on his work and their familial connections.

 

The HIGH used blank lines as place holders when featuring the work of unidentified enslaved potters in an effort to humanize and dignify the artists. I am left with the distinct and clear understanding that innate creativity, resilience and ingenuity can not be silenced or destroyed. It, as one conglomerate, will indefinitely speak with a resounding identifiable voice of its own. And we, the children of our past, will acknowledge and listen with honor.

 

The exhibition will be on display until May 12, 2024.

 

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