Fig. 1: Portrait of Humphrey Sommers, Jeremiah Theus (ca. 1719–1774). Charleston, South Carolina, 1750–1755. Oil on canvas. HOA: 30, WOA: 25 in. MESDA Collection. 3974.

“Black and white all mix’d together… This is Charles-town, how do you like it.”

   — Capt. Martin, captain of a Man of War (1769) 1


Enslaved black and free white craftsmen worked side by side across the southern landscape.  Over the past thirty years, researchers at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) have identified nearly 6,500 slave-owning craftsmen, whose slaves worked alongside them on building sites, at the potters’ wheels, in cabinet shops, at iron foundries, behind the counters of silversmiths’ shops, and at dozens of other trades.2 Most enslaved craftsmen are now anonymous, their identities lost in their master’s work; their existence reduced to a statement of their enslaved status in a newspaper advertisement or legal record in their master’s name. But the close reading of deeds, wills, advertisements, and other primary source records by MESDA have identified nearly 3,000 enslaved craftsmen by name.3

Fig. 2: Slave Runaway Advertisement for Sam. From the City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, March 11, 1809. Charleston, South Carolina. Microfilm copy of Newspaper. MESDA Research Center.

Humphrey Sommers (1711–1788), a slave-owning craftsman, is well known to scholars of southern decorative arts (Fig. 1). Born in the west of England in 1711, he was in Charleston by 1748, when he was identified as a bricklayer. In the late 1750s he was one of the contractors at work on Charleston’s new St. Michael’s Church. By 1753 he was referring to himself as a “gentleman,” and by 1771 he was being styled “esquire” in legal documents.  When he died in 1788 he left an estate with more than 3,000 acres of land, 225 slaves, and £15,691 in other assets.4 We know far less about Sam, one of Sommers’ slaves (Fig. 2).  Described as a “jobbing carpenter…[who] formerly belonged to the estate of Humphrey Sommers,” Sam appears in the written record only once, after he ran away from a subsequent owner in 1809.5

The life stories of thousands of named and nameless enslaved craftsmen like Sam are mostly lost to history. But the great skill of their now-hidden hands are not. Their skills are evident in the many icons of southern decorative arts they helped to create.

Fig. 3: Jar, David Drake (1800–1875), Edgefield District, S.C., 1858. Alkaline-glazed stoneware. H. 24-1/4, W. 22 in. MESDA Collection. 4317.

Of the nearly 3,000 enslaved craftsmen identified by MESDA, there is only one whose work we can positively attribute. Dave was born into slavery in the Edgefield District of South Carolina around 1800. Despite laws prohibiting literacy among slaves, he was taught to read and write. A testimony to his literacy, Dave signed and inscribed some of the pots he made — to date more than 150 examples have been recorded. This jar is inscribed, “I saw a leppard [sic] and a lions face / then I felt the need of — grace.” He adapted this verse from the Book of Revelations less than a decade before the Civil War would give him his freedom. As a freed man he adopted the more formal appellation “David” and the last name “Drake,” after one of his earliest owners.6

Fig. 4: Face jug, unknown maker, Edgefield District, S.C., ca. 1855–1865. Alkaline-glazed stoneware. H. 5-7/8, W. 4-5/16 in. MESDA Collection. 5366.

Anthropomorphic jugs made by enslaved craftsmen are thought to relate to indigenous African forms. Fragments of face jugs have been discovered at archeological sites secluded from the main Edgefield potteries. These sites also provide evidence of the production of utilitarian ceramics by enslaved craftsmen for their own communities.7

Fig. 5: Jar, David Jarbour (active 1820–1841), Alexandria, Va., 1830. Salt-glazed stoneware with cobalt decoration. H. 27-3/4, Dia. 14-1/2 in.   MESDA Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Byron J. Banks.  2964.

A small number of enslaved craftsmen were able to leverage their skills to purchase their freedom. In 1820, David Jarbour, an enslaved potter working in Alexandria, Virginia, purchased his freedom from Zenas Kinsey for $300. Ten years later Jarbour created an immense pot for the H. C. Smith pottery where he worked. Incised into the base are the words: “1830 / Alexa  / Maid [sic] By / D. Jarbour.” The following year, John Swann, the overseer, left the pottery. Perhaps Jarbour created this ambitious pot to show off his skills in a bid for the job.8

Fig. 6: Fireback, Tubal Furnace, Spotsylvania County, Va., 1725. Cast iron, H. 24, W. 36-1/4, D. 7/8 in. MESDA Collection. 3956.

Iron furnaces were among the most prolific users of enslaved craftsmen. Alexander Spotswood (1676–1740), a former royal governor of Virginia and proprietor of the Turbal Furnace in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, made special mention in his will of the enslaved craftsmen working at the ironworks: “Whereas the said tract…called the mine tract is…appropriated for the carrying on an Iron work…it is necessary that at least Eighty able working Slaves with twenty Children belonging to them should be annexed to the said Land and employed in the said Work…”9

Fig. 7: Fireback, Aera Furnace, York County, S.C., 1778. Cast iron. H. 24, W. 23 in. MESDA Collection, Sprague Foundation Purchase Fund. 3119.

More Charleston, South Carolina, craftsmen owned slaves (1,767)—and more identified enslaved craftsmen worked in Charleston (737)—than in any other city. Enslaved craftsmen were so ubiquitous in that city that local journeymen and apprentices lobbied fiercely for laws to regulate the training and conduct of their enslaved competitors. In 1764, the South Carolina Legislature passed a statute allowing craftsmen to train their own slaves provided they “have and constantly employ one white apprentice or journeyman for every two Negroes or other slaves they shall so teach and thenceforth employ…”10

In 1779, as the British prepared to land at Charleston, South Carolina, the Aera Furnace in York County, South Carolina, advertised its need of one hundred enslaved craftsmen, promising that “no situation in the State is more healthy and secure from an enemy.”11 The new laborers were put to work making munitions for the American cause and household goods such as this patriotic fireback emblazoned “Liberty or Death”—a profoundly ironic sentiment to any enslaved person aware of Lord Dunmore’s promise to free any slave who made it across British lines and took up arms in the British cause. Despite assurances that no location in the state was safer, the ironworks were destroyed by British troops in 1780.

Fig. 8: Coffeepot with chased and raised decoration, Alexander Petrie (ca. 1707–1768) and shop, Charleston, S.C., ca. 1750–1760. Silver, wood. H. 10-3/8 in. MESDA collection. 3996.

A highly skilled enslaved craftsman named Abraham labored behind the “AP” mark of Charleston silversmith Alexander Petrie. Abraham may have been responsible for the daily operation of the shop after 1765, when Petrie sold much of his stock and dissolved his partnership with Erskin Heron.12 A bidding war erupted among Charleston’s silversmiths for Abraham following Petrie’s death in 1768. Valued at £400 by the estate’s appraiser, he sold for £810 at auction to the silversmith Jonathan Sarrazin (active circa 1754–1790).

Fig. 9: Marble Top Sideboard Table, Anthony Hay (active 1751–1766) and shop, Williamsburg, Va., ca. 1750–1760. Cherry, maple, yellow pine, marble. H. 28 in. W. 49 in. MESDA Collection. 4013.

From tree to finished table, the work of a cabinet shop represents the labor of the shop master as well as that of his journeymen, apprentices, and sometimes enslaved craftsmen. MESDA has identified more enslaved craftsmen in wood-related trades than any other. Anthony Hay, a Williamsburg cabinetmaker, made use of enslaved craftsmen in his shop. The sale of his estate advertised in the Virginia Gazette, February 14, 1771, listed “Nineteen Negroes…among them a very good Cabinet Maker.”

Fig. 10: Tilt-top tea table, Robert Walker (ca. 1710–1777) and shop, King George County, Va. ca. 1755–1760. Mahogany, cherry. H. 28-1/2, W. 30 in. MESDA Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. T. Warmath in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Worsham Dew. 3992.

In 1743, Spence Monroe, father of the future president, entered into an indenture with King George County, Virginia, cabinetmaker Robert Walker, who promised to teach not only Monroe, but also his slave, Muddy, “the Trade & Mystery of a Joyner.” As a mark of Monroe’s status he was allowed to “Eat in Company with the said Rob. Walker or the Chief of his Journeymen.” By contrast, the enslaved Muddy was to be “Employed in no Other Business than in the way of the said Trade and Shop Business. Only a Day or two at Planting or gathering Corn or on Such Emergency Occasions.”13

Fig. 11: Breakfast table, James Woodward (1769–1839) and shop, Norfolk, Va., 1819. Mahogany, poplar, white pine, sycamore. H. 27-3/8, W. 50-3/4 in. MESDA Collection. 3813.

In 1818, James Woodward, a Norfolk, Virginia, cabinetmaker loaned an enslaved craftsmen named James $120 to purchase his freedom. In return, James promised “for 12 months next ensuing…[to]…work as a Journeyman Cabinetmaker…until the full value…shall be repaid to him.”14 The following year Humberston Skipwith of Elm Hill, Mecklenburg County, Virginia, purchased a “large Pillow (pillar) & claw Breakfast Table” from Woodward’s shop for $45. While we can never be certain if James worked on this table, it was through the construction of furniture like this that James was able to achieve his freedom.

Daniel Kurt Ackermann is associate curator of MESDA and the Old Salem Toy Museum, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.