Daniel Ackerman, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts
Mahogany and cherry tea table, attributed Robert Walker (ca. 1710-1777), 1750-1760, King George County, Virginia, Gift to MESDA by Mr. and Mrs. John T. Warmath in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Worsham Dew
Enslaved and free craftsmen of color helped build and furnish antebellum Southern homes. The first step in recognizing the contributions of these otherwise nameless craftspeople is to identify them. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (or “MESDA”) has spent more than four decades identifying the names — and crafts — of more than 6,000 slave-owning craftsmen, more than 3,000 enslaved craftsmen and more than a thousand free craftsmen of color. African-American craftsmen worked at dozens of trades, including pottery-making, silversmithing and cabinetmaking. Daniel Ackerman will tell us a few of their stories and show us their products.
David Drake (ca. 1781 – ca.1870), an Edgefield, South Carolina, potter is probably the best known enslaved craftsman. His large, utilitarian, alkaline-glazed pots literally speak to us through the words he inscribed on their sides. When it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write in South Carolina, Dave exhibited his education at the risk of severe punishment. Dave flaunted his accomplishments by signing, dating and inscribing pots with witticisms and poetry. The words of some of Dave’s inscriptions defy the slavery laws that held him in bondage and dispersed his family: “I wonder where is all my relation/friendship to all — and, every nation” (1857). Other jars, the following two examples dated 1859, articulate religious beliefs: “I made this out of number, & cross/if you do not lisen at the bible you’ll be lost” and Good for lard — or holding — fresh meats &/blest we were — when peter saw the folded sheets.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, an enslaved silversmith named Abraham labored behind the “AP” mark of his master, Alexander Petrie (ca. 1707–1768). When Petrie retired in July, 1765, he kept Abraham and his silversmithing tools but sold most of his stock to a competitor, Jonathan Sarrazin (working ca.1754–1790). Petrie’s retention of tools and labor suggests that the shop may have continued to operate with Abraham at its helm. Following Petrie’s death in 1768, Sarrazin acquired Abraham in a bidding war for the large sum of £810. Abraham was a rare, but not unique, southern artisan. Other enslaved silversmiths have been recorded as working in Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Annapolis, Maryland during the 18th century.
Thomas Day (1801–1861) was an exceptional craftsman and entrepreneur. Day’s use of mahogany, pine, and poplar is just as notable as the way that he used his talent, tenacity and business acumen to transcend the racial boundaries of his time and a shrinking local market. By 1850, Thomas Day’s cabinet shop in Milton, North Carolina, was the largest in the state. He employed white and black, free and enslaved labor. The Day shop also competed with out-of-state, cheaper, factory-made furniture by introducing steam-powered machinery to his shop. Thomas Day also retained patronage by providing custom-made interiors and architectural woodwork, along with complementary, stylish furniture, for the region’s wealthy planter class.
For every David Drake, Abraham and Thomas Day, there are countless other individuals whose names and stories have been lost to history. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts continues its research to identify the lives and work of these craftsmen whose skills are revealed in the objects that they helped to fashion.
Daniel Ackerman earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the College of William and Mary. The thesis for his master’s degree in architectural history and historic preservation from the University of Virginia was “Early American Synagogues: Architecture and Identity in the Judeo-Atlantic World.” He was an American decorative arts intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006-2007 and, since then, has been the associate curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.
Mr. Ackerman’s contributions to The Magazine Antiques are “Living with Antiques: The Kentucky Collection of Mack and Sharon Cox” (2011); “Google Goes Antiquing” (2011); “Living With Antiques: Shearer Energy” (2010); and “Palladio Minimus: A Georgian Dollhouse and the Eighteenth-Century Miniature World” (2008). Antiques and Fine Arts has published Daniel Ackerman’s “A Land of Liberty and Plenty: Georgia Decorative Arts at MESDA” (2010) and the subject of his presentation to the Forum, “ ‘Black and White all Mix’d Together’: The Hidden Legacy of Enslaved Craftsmen” (2009).