Hidden History: Dave the Potter

(WJBF) - Deep inside the halls of the McKissick museum on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia stand tall, majestic vessels.  They are remnant of a dark time in southern history.  A time that has been brought to light more than 150 years later through a slave named Dave.  "He made functional wares because he had to and that was his livelihood, or it was his master's livelihood, but he also found a way to make wares of his own personal self expression through the dating, the signing and especially the rhymed couplets," explains MicKissick museum executive director Jane Przybysz.

Dave was taught how to read and write which was rare for slaves in the 1800s.  Not much is known about Dave's life, but his work speaks volumes for itself on huge jars and jugs with little messages. "Everything that Dave wrote was off the cuff. Things that happened in the moment. They were spontaneous or what we consider what art should be and they were on beautiful pieces that ensured his words lasted for 150 plus years," says Edgefield potter Justin Guy.  He grew up on the land where Dave lived his last years of life.  Guy says he grew up playing in the pottery shards that Dave left behind.

For Dave, it all started on land on the cusp of Edgefield, South Carolina formerly known as "Pottersville." A 115 foot long kiln is buried under the now sacred ground. Archeologist say it's the largest kiln in America.  It was the workplace of dozens of slaves like Dave who were shackled by slavery.  But, Dave found freedom in his craft.  Guy says, "everybody wants to control their destiny in some way.  Dave controlled clay.  That was his freedom during those times." That freedom came with a price.  One that could have cost Dave his life.  For that reason, there was what's now considered a "silent period" from 1844 until around 1848. "The circumstances surrounding Edgefield, South Carolina and being a slave at that time he chose not to write on his pots except for once that we know of."

According to records, it's believed that Dave lived to be in his 70s and barely knew life beyond slavery.  But long after his death, Dave still lives through his imprint on jars that have been seen and felt around the world. "We have 36 poems which give us even more insight into the personality of Dave.  Every artist wants to live forever in some way.  This was his ticket," adds Justin Guy.

Pots Dave made for free are now being sold for millions of dollars.  Many are displayed in top museums of art.  More than 100 years after his death, there's a resurrection of interest in Dave.  In fact, in 2016, Dave was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. "He's special in our history annals but he's special as an individual."  An individual who disappeared without a physical trace. But, left a lasting impression on history and hearts. "We wish we had more but we're grateful for what we have," concludes Guy.

The city of Edgefield, South Carolina has begun an tradition of honoring Dave.  Each July, they hold "Dave Day."  Also, Dave has become a topic of discussion on various college campuses.  A professor at Dartmouth teaches a course on Dave's pottery and poetry.


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