Large ceramic vessels were a necessity on the large plantations of antebellum South. Most were made by slave labor, in potteries. The slaves were typically from pottery-producing regions in Africa, but occasionally were “country-born” slaves. These vessels were utilitarian in nature, and never signed, as most slaves were illiterate.
Unusually, there is one slave potter who could not only read and write, but who was prolific in his poems and inscriptions he added to his vessels. Know as Dave-the-Slave, Dave-the-Potter, or David Drake, he was born about 1801 in Edgefield, South Carolina.
His first owner was Harvey Drake, and Dave was put to work in Drake’s pottery factory when he was still a teen.
It was considered highly unusual that a slave would be taught to read and write, as many slave owners assumed that the ability would encourage rebelliousness in their slaves. The exception was religious slave owners, like Harvey Drake, who saw literacy as a route to God, through reading the Bible. Dave was taught to read and write, and often added witty inscriptions to his pottery, he was fond of puns, double entendres, and rhyme.
When Drake died, Dave was sold to his brother, and if not for a terrible accident, would have been moved south to Louisiana. Dave lost a leg while sleeping on railroad tracks, when he recovered he was sold to another Drake family member in South Carolina who owned a pottery.
Dave was unable to work the treadle with one foot, so an armless slave worked the treadle, while Dave shaped the clay. They were considered to be the most talented team in the region.
Dave’s later life was unfortunately not a happy one, his wifewas sold south (note: slaves were not allowed to enter a marriage in the legal sense of the word), and he wrote no poetry between this point and the end of the Civil War. His town was spared from much of the fighting, preserving his works and many documents about his life. He was reunited with several of his loved ones after the war, and it is assumed he died in the 1870’s.