2020 VOLUME 41

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Edgefield District Stoneware: The Potter’s Legacy

Corbett Toussaint

A pair of alkaline-glazed stoneware tombstones, along with fragments of others, were found in the late 1980s by archaeologist Carl Steen at the periphery of a church graveyard near the border of Edgefield and Aiken counties in South Carolina. Both tombstones feature carefully inlaid kaolin clay letters that recognized the deceased as well as the maker of the tombstones, “F. E. Justice” (Figures 1 and 2). Focusing on these objects, two face vessels found in museum collections, examples of incised utilitarian pottery, and the documentary record, a deeply interwoven community of African American potters who worked and lived in the Edgefield District of South Carolina during the nineteenth century has begun to emerge. The maker of the alkaline-glazed stoneware tombstones, a Black potter named Fortune Justice, was born about 1856 in present-day Aiken County, South Carolina. In 1880, he was living with fellow potters near Shaws Creek where John W. … Continued

John Gough, Free Black Cabinetmaker of Charleston, 1763–1791

Grahame Long and Gary Albert

The recent sale of a circa 1790 Charleston secretary wardrobe featuring a signature that appears to read “John Gough” has increased awareness of the free African American cabinetmaker of the same name. The mahogany secretary wardrobe (Figure 1) along with a previously overlooked primary resource significantly add to our understanding of this craftsman, including how he attained his freedom, under whom he may have trained as a cabinetmaker, and the possible identity of his parents. These two documents—one physical and the other archival—are exceedingly rare survivals for an eighteenth-century free person of color, especially a skilled craftsperson. Through thoughtful analysis and consideration of historical documents and the secretary bookcase we can add substantially to what is known of the life and career of John Gough. In 1790, besides the communities of at least nine separate European groups, the South Carolina coastal region included some 51,000 enslaved Africans by 1790, many … Continued

Research Note: Freedom in a Slave Economy: Abraham Spencer and Pottery Making in the Shenandoah Valley

Brenda Hornsby Heindl

Much scholarship in recent years has shed light on enslaved potters working in the American South, most notably David Drake and other African Americans working in the Edgefield District of South Carolina.[1] Aside from recent scholarship by Angelika Kuettner on the free Black potter David Jarbour, little attention has been given to the number of free people of color who worked as potters in a slave economy before the American Civil War.[2] One such free Black potter was a man named Abraham Spencer who worked in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, probably alongside several of the Valley’s well-known white potters. Although few pieces of pottery survive that can be attributed to Abraham Spencer, numerous records document his life, the lives of his family, and the people with whom the Spencer family interacted (Figure 1). The goal of this article is to gather surviving documentation of Spencer’s life and career, illustrate the … Continued

John “Quash” Williams, Charleston Builder

Tiffany Momon

Fig. 10. “A Colonial Mansion in Ruins—1865” attributed to Matthew Brady, 1865. Reproduced from Francis Trevelyan Miller and Robert S. Lanier, eds., The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes, Vol. 9: (New York: The Review of Reviews Co., 1911), 319; available online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015042873854&view=1up&seq=323 (accessed 2 October 2020).

Previous accounts of John “Quash” Williams’s life have centered his story around his relationship with the Pinckney Family of Charleston, South Carolina. Williams is often noted as the enslaved man who assisted Eliza Lucas Pinckney in the production of a successful indigo crop. Additionally, he is also known as the enslaved carpenter responsible for the carpentry and joinery work on the circa 1750 Pinckney Mansion in Charleston, one of the city’s grandest pre-Revolutionary houses. Williams’s relationship with the Pinckneys, first as an enslaved man and later as a free man of color, is the most well-documented portion of his life. New previously unpublished research has uncovered the story of Williams both before and after his work on the Pinckney Mansion adding a significant layer of insight into his life while also providing an uncommonly rare view into the complexities of enslavement, craftsmanship, and freedom in the colonial South. These new … Continued

“I Have a Job of 4. Pembroke Tables on Hand at Monticello”: Five Tables Made for Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest by Joiners James Dinsmore and John Hemmings

Robert L. Self

In late June 1808, four identical mahogany Pembroke tables made in the joiner’s shop at Monticello were loaded onto a wagon by master joiner James Dinsmore and sent off on the three-day journey to Thomas Jefferson’s retreat Poplar Forest, then under construction ninety miles south in Bedford County, Virginia (Figure 1).[1] The story of those four tables is documented in a remarkable series of eleven letters that reveal essential elements of their design and ultimate use as envisioned by Jefferson, along with unexpected factors that affected their actual production.[2] The wealth of specific information provided by this correspondence is unequaled elsewhere in the canon of surviving Monticello furnishings and has been instrumental in the identification of two surviving tables of the four made in 1808. The two surviving Pembroke tables are by far the best documented and earliest extant examples of furniture comprising the so-called “Monticello Joinery” group—their inclusion is … Continued

“…my friend David Jarboe…”: The Unfinished Portrait of an Alexandria Potter

Angelika R. Kuettner

Alexandria’s tradition of stoneware manufacture is one of the great American ceramics stories. The broad outlines of stoneware made in Alexandria, Virginia have been put forth by scholars and collectors in the last fifteen years, but much more remains to be addressed, especially the roles played by enslaved and free African American potters.[1] The narrative of free African American potter David Jarbour is an important part of this story. From 1791 until 1847, the city of Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia. In the District of Columbia, enslaved African Americans could purchase their freedom and remain within the community, often working as skilled craftsmen. Jarbour purchased his freedom in 1820 and practiced his trade at the Wilkes Street Pottery in Alexandria. The important role played by African American potters in American ceramics history has only recently been widely acknowledged. National recognition has been given to the enslaved potter … Continued

Harry Mordecai, Plasterer and Bricklayer of Frankfort, Kentucky

Sharon Cox

    The best description of the free African American ornamental and plain plasterer and bricklayer Harry Mordecai is found in his January 1853 obituary published in The Frankfort Commonwealth (Figure 1).[1] Titled “Honor To the Lowly and Upright,” the obituary describes a pious man and a successful artisan who used his skills to purchase freedom for himself and his family: Harry Mordecai, from youth to old age a much respected colored inhabitant of Frankfort, departed this life on Monday, Jan. 3d, 1853, aged about 70 years. He was born a slave, and instructed by his master in the business of bricklaying, plaster, &c. By his energy, industry and economy, he bought his own freedom, and that of his wife and several children, afterwards reared and supported a very large family, and left at his death a very considerable estate for one in his humble position. He lived long, usefully, … Continued

Decoding the Woodwork of White Hall: A Network of Enslaved Carpenters and French Huguenots

Katherine McCarthy Watts

The interior woodwork from White Hall Plantation reflects the legacy of the highly skilled African American carvers and carpenters who were enslaved by families of Huguenot descent in Berkeley County, South Carolina (Figure 1). While the house at White Hall Plantation does not survive, a room was saved and is exhibited at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Though the room had been interpreted as a dining room in the past (Figure 2), when compared to historical photos it is clear that it is actually White Hall’s former drawing room (Figure 3). Despite the obvious skill and talent of the craftsmen who completed the architectural interiors, until recently the museum knew little about the specific carpenters and carvers who created the room’s intricate carved and gouged woodwork. White Hall was built for Thomas Porcher (1796–1843) and his wife Catherine Gaillard Porcher. While researching a group of quilts with Porcher and Palmer family histories, MESDA’s … Continued

Guest Editor’s Introduction

Dr. Torren Gatson

It is energizing to know that African American craftsmanship, a subject that has been rendered invisible in some decorative arts circles for so long, has now reached the forefront of discussion in the MESDA Journal. The true power in an object is its ability to tell a story and, on occasion, capture the voice of an otherwise historically invisible person. The fine and decorative arts too often highlight only the accomplishments of the white craftsmen and white majority, while relegating skilled African American craftspeople to the periphery, to the footnotes, or erasing them entirely. The articles in the 2020 edition of the MESDA Journal are a strong beginning. The phenomenal stories and accompanying decorative objects in this volume fill a void in the scholarship of decorative arts. The authors of this year’s articles prove that by observing culture through a comprehensive lens, we begin to see that the real narrative is the story … Continued

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