Mud, sweat and tears

A new book by Leonard Todd, “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave,” explores the eccentric (for the times) upbringing and education of an exceptionally talented country potter. Dave had the misfortune to be born into a society who saw his value only as a beast of burden — not as a man or an artist.

“Edgefield was a center of pottery manufacturing in the 19th century and Dave was one of the most talented of the slave potters who lived here,” said Todd. Some of Dave’s pots could hold 40 gallons.

Dave, who took the surname Drake after emancipation, was a literate man in a time when educating slaves was not simply frowned upon but criminalized. For that reason, the vast majority of Drake’s work was unsigned. But when it was — oh, how he signed it. With verse and witticisms that endear the obviously intelligent potter to the people who admire both the size and durability of his work, but also the acetic artistry, reminiscent of the Shaker aesthetic.

“One of them that I like especially refers to the very jar he was working on: ‘A very large jar which has four handles/fill it with fresh meats then light the candles,’” Todd said.

The author — urged by the discovery that his ancestors had enslaved the potter — moved into an apartment in the downtown section of Edgefield to research and write this book.

Although not much is known about the specifics of Drake, Todd seems to have left no shard unturned.

Todd doesn’t just focus on the potter; he talks about his family’s story, antebellum culture, the timely methods of industry and economy, and the winds of change that swept through the South.

It’s a touching, sweeping story — but there is a weakness in its telling. Todd is stymied by the scarcity of knowledge about Drake’s life, as researchers have been for the last century, and thus he relied on the “Hollywood” method of research. It involves a great deal of speculation — in Todd’s case, most of it educated guessing based on what is known about the people around Drake and the most likely scenarios that would play out based on Drake’s status in society. The speculations start early, and Todd makes no attempt to hide them. A reader who does not read this story with a critical eye could come away from it with a warped view of reality.

The life and times of David Drake — irreverently known as “Dave the Slave” — is not a story that fits into what we know of South Carolina before the American Civil War. Instead of being a good example of the culture of the time, his story stands out for being an anomaly — a welcome anomaly.

Leonard Todd

Author, “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Poter Dave”
Wednesday, Jan. 7
Augusta Museum of History
11:30 a.m. Refreshments
12:30 p.m. lecture
$3, free for members


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