Enslaved craftsmen were at work across the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century South, and a new exhibition, “‘Black and white all mix’d together’: The Hidden Legacy of Enslaved Craftsmen” recovers the stories of these often nameless individuals through the masterpieces of Southern decorative arts, including ceramics, silver, and furniture, that they helped to create. The exhibit runs through September 15 at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) at Old Salem Museums & Gardens.
“This exhibit marks the first time that MESDA has taken a serious look at the African American contribution to the early South’s cultural history, drawing deeply upon the resources here in our research center and, of course, the collection itself,” said Robert Leath, vice president of collections at Old Salem Museums & Gardens.
Among the featured objects is a signed jar made in 1858 by David Drake, an enslaved potter from Edgefield, S.C., who boldly inscribed its side with a verse from the book of Revelations at a time when it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write.
Also included is a remarkable carved corner chair made in the Fredericksburg, Va., workshop of Robert Walker, a cabinetmaker who took on at least one enslaved apprentice.
Other important objects include one of the earliest known face jars from Edgefield; a mid-Eighteenth Century Charleston, S.C., teapot made in the slave-owning workshop of silversmith Alexander Petrie; and an iron fireback dated 1778 that boldly proclaims “Liberty or Death.”
In 1775, Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled to the British lines. In 1779, as British forces eyed Charleston, the Aera Furnace advertised its need for “One hundred working Negros” and promised owners that “no situation in the State is more healthy and secure from an enemy.” The enslaved craftsmen at Aera produced munitions for the Continental Army and patriotic domestic items like the ironically emblazoned fireback. The ironworks were captured and burned by British forces in 1780.
At the new exhibit, high-quality photography of these and other pieces will be available for purchase.
Admission to MESDA is available to the public for the price of an “All-In-One” visitor ticket to Old Salem, or $21 adults; $10 for children ages 6‱6.
Old Salem Museums & Gardens is at 900 Old Salem Road. For information, www.oldsalem.org or 336-721-7350.