Prolific David Drake, also known as Dave the Potter, was an enslaved artist born on a plantation in North Carolina in 1801. He toiled the soil and labored on several plantations and, throughout his lifetime, was sold or traded by a number of plantation owners. Many of his family members were also separated from him through this inhumane process. By 1858, Drake, now in his 50s, ended up in the Edgefield District of South Carolina on the Savannah River north of Augusta. At that time, he had become the property of Harvey Drake, the publisher of the local newspaper the Edgefield Hive. By this point, Drake was recognized for his pottery creations by Dr. Abner Landrum, a plantation owner who also owned Landrums’ potteries.
Between 1834 and 1866, David Drake, who had lost a foot in a train accident, had created at least 40,000 functional alkaline ceramic glaze pots, some of which could hold as many as 30 gallons. Despite legal prohibitions against enslaved people learning to read and write, Drake was literate enough to identify his work by engraving an X and then circling it with a horseshoe-shaped symbol spelling out the word “Dave.” He also dated each pot and sometimes used the initials “LM” to represent one of his earlier plantation owners, Lewis Miles. Drake also added Christian proverbs, which were later recognized as a form of resistance to slavery. Drake wrote short poems as well. It is speculated that he learned to read and write from working as a typesetter at the Edgefield Hive.
One of Drake’s pots, a white kaolin clay and water “catenation” jar dated 1836, two years after South Carolina passed a punitive anti-literacy law, gives a terse account of slavery, indicating that he was now communicating anti-slavery messages through his art. By 1841, however, Drake ceased writing on his pots for fear of being harmed by slaveowners or their supporters. In 2020, the catenation jar was auctioned and bought for $369,000 by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
Despite being freed by the 13th Amendment in 1865, Dave the Potter remained loyal to his former owner, Harvey Drake, and embraced the former owner’s surname. Dave the Potter, now known as David Drake, died in 1874 in the Edgefield District at the approximate age of 73. In 2016, 142 years after his death, David Drake was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. Despite his prolific artistic production in slavery and the last decade of his life as a free person, Drake and his descendants received no proceeds from his artwork, which now commands millions of dollars from leading museums.