UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — In 1857, an enslaved potter in South Carolina’s Old Edgefield district carved a brief poem into a pot he’d turned in the mid-August heat.
The potter had been bought and sold by a series of owners by then. He’d lost a leg, but his gifted hands won him local renown: His expert work with clay ensured he would be kept in the district known for its stoneware, even as his family was torn from him at auction.
Using a sharpened tool, he etched into the jar’s shoulder: “I wonder where is all my relation/Friendship to all — and every nation.” The potter then added his enslaver’s initials, the date, and, finally, his own name: “Dave.”
In that simple act, the man, long known as Dave the Potter, and later David Drake, was not only wondering about his lost family: He was committing an extraordinary act of defiance in pre-Civil War South Carolina, indelibly asserting his existence in an age that sought to obliterate the humanity of Black people.
Originally created to store meats and other foods, Drake’s 40 or so poem jars are today highly sought after by museums. His inscribed vessels routinely fetch six figures at auction, and his stoneware features prominently in “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” an exhibition featuring enslaved potters’ work that opens this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Perhaps most significantly: More than 150 years after Drake composed his mournful verse, researchers appear finally to have found his direct descendants.
“He was sending these messages,” said Daisy Whitner, 84, whom genealogists have identified as Drake’s great-great-great-granddaughter. “He wanted people to know: I’m a human being; treat me as such.”
Now in their mid-70s and 80s, Whitner and her three siblings, Pauline Baker, John N. Williams, and Priscilla Ann Carolina, believed for most of their lives that their known family tree began in Aiken, S.C. They hadn’t known they’d had family in Edgefield. They’d certainly never heard of David Drake.
But that changed in 2016, when April Hynes, an independent genealogist and researcher who’s been tracking down descendants of enslaved people from the area, cold-called Whitner. By pairing historical research with publicly available documents, Hynes had determined that Whitner and her siblings were the potter’s direct descendants.
“It’s almost like he sent out a message through a pot, and it came back all these years later,” said Hynes. “It all connected.”
The revelation has plunged the four siblings, along with their own numerous descendants, headlong into a disorienting world. There’s the sharp-elbowed debate over Drake’s life, legacy, and relationship with his enslavers. There’s the thorny question of how museums, which have long ignored the contributions of Black and enslaved people, should treat “artworks” created by coerced labor — a question only sharpened by the pots’ vaulting auction values. Then there’s the family’s own curiosity and the ineffable emotion that comes with the discovery of an enslaved ancestor.
“I don’t have a word to describe him,” said Baker, 75, seated on a sofa in her niece’s tidy home outside Washington, D.C., a replica Drake pot placed prominently on the dining room table. “He was a special person.”
Seated to her right, Whitner grew emotional as she described touching one of Drake’s pots during a trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which organized the exhibition with the MFA.
“It just tore me to pieces,” she said. “I can’t stop reading and reading, trying to dig more and more.”
The family has read nearly everything published about their ancestor, as they puzzle over his poems, searching for possible meanings and seeking clues about his life.
Whitner is haunted by a particular jar Drake created and inscribed in 1836. It reads: “horses mules and hogs —/all our cows is in the bogs —/there they shall ever stay/till the buzzards take them away.”
“He’s using farm animals rather than to say slave,” she said, describing an episode from a Drake biography where an enslaved woman was found hanged after defying her enslaver. “She probably laid there till the buzzards came.”
Born around 1801, Drake appears to have lived most of his life in the Old Edgefield district, an area that borders Georgia and is known for its rich clays and industrial-scale potteries that ran on slave labor.
His first inscription appears on June 12, 1834: “Concatination,” he wrote faintly on the jug, perhaps a variant of a word whose Latin root means “chain.”
It was a dangerous time for a Black man to display literacy: A series of bloody slave revolts — including Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, which killed an estimated 55 white people — prompted South Carolina to pass a harsh anti-literacy law later that year, prohibiting enslaved people from learning to read or write.
But Drake kept writing.
“He was a rebel,” said Whitner. “He’s fighting against slavery.”
Scholars speculate that Drake, who took the surname of his first known owner after the war, learned to read while working at the Edgefield Hive, a newspaper owned by a relative of Drake’s enslavers.
His skill at the potter’s wheel brought a degree of local acclaim, and a newspaper article from the time describes his “magic touch.” Another is more bluntly racist, calling him a “grandiloquent old darkey” with “an intelligent twinkle in his eye.”
Leonard Todd, a descendant of Drake’s enslavers who has written a biography of the potter, has speculated that one of Drake’s owners may have taught him to read, a skill he believes the potter honed at the newspaper. He added that Drake, whose poem jars span from 1834-1862, likely had a sufficiently amicable relationship with some of his owners that he felt emboldened to write on his creations.
“He must have felt safe,” said Todd, whose book, “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave,” pieces together key parts of Drake’s biography. “People don’t like to hear that he had the protection of his master, but there’s no other way he could have succeeded in writing on his pots.”
The MFA exhibition, which presents 12 Drake vessels, takes direct aim at that narrative, which co-curator Ethan Lasser called the “mythology” of Drake’s “beneficent enslavers.”
“That’s not our reading,” said Lasser, chair of the MFA’s Art of the Americas department. “These are enslavement-resistant objects, against the enslavers, not through the enslavers.”
It’s a complicated question for Drake’s descendants, who see veiled messages of resistance in his poem jars.
“He may have had a good relationship with [his enslaver], however, it was still a slave-master relationship,” said Baker. “Things were in code.”
The dispute comes into sharpest relief over how Drake, who likely died in the 1870s, lost his leg.
Todd and other scholars maintain that a railroad accident severed the potter’s limb — an account first provided in 1930 by a former slave named Carey Dickson, who said he’d known Drake personally.
“He used to belong to old man Drake and it was at that time that he had his leg cut off,” Dickson told Charleston Museum director Laura Bragg, a white woman. “They say he got drunk and layed on the railroad track.”
Lasser and his fellow curators flatly reject the story, calling it “fraught with racist tropes.” They argue that Dickson, given the racial politics of the day, would have felt constrained from giving a more sinister account of the amputation to the white woman from Charleston.
“You lost your limbs for doing certain things: One, escaping; two, writing,” said MFA curator of folk and self-taught art Michael Bramwell, a Drake expert who coauthored a catalog essay with Lasser. “Why are we buying this story? Why can’t we entertain any other story?”
The show’s skeptical edge has drawn fierce criticism from Todd and a group of fellow historians, who’ve complained privately to the curators and published a lengthy rebuke in The Edgefield Advertiser.
“It’s pure speculation,” said Todd. “They have absolutely no foundation to build that on, and it goes against everything that I and other researchers have found about Dave’s life.”
Drake’s descendants also find the train story implausible, questioning Todd’s position, as the descendant of Drake’s owners, in shaping their ancestor’s story.
The train “would have ripped him apart,” said Baker. She added that she was, nonetheless, thankful for Todd’s scholarship, which led genealogist Hynes to track them down.
“But I don’t think he should be the last word.”
The siblings had mixed emotions when Hynes first called them with the news about Drake, but soon they were traveling down to Edgefield with around 30 family members to take part in celebrations to honor the potter.
“It’s a joyous feeling,” said John N. Williams, 81. “But then there was a sadness about it, because you thought about the atrocities that happened.”
They appreciate how rare it is, as the descendants of slaves, to be able to read their ancestor’s thoughts — particularly while he was still in bondage. But discovering a forebear who spent most of his life enslaved has also personalized their perception of the era, wrestling as they do with the scant details, and many unknowns, of Drake’s life.
Whitner said she’d previously avoided looking at movies about slavery because “my heart couldn’t take it.”
“It hurt me to my core,” she said. “And I will look now.”
Meanwhile, interest in Drake’s pottery has skyrocketed among museums, many of which are eager to correct centuries of overlooking the artistic contributions of Black and enslaved people.
Last month, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., became the latest major museum to acquire one of Drake’s jars. It joins the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met, and the Saint Louis Art Museum, among others, which have all acquired Drake creations over the past few years. (The MFA already has two works in its permanent collection.)
Perhaps most notably, a jar now owned by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., set a sales record in 2021 when it fetched more than $1.5 million at auction (including the buyer’s premium) — a far cry from the $800 (or around $29,000 today) that Drake himself was once sold for on the block.
The irony is not lost on Drake’s descendants.
Unlike the heirs of other widely collected artists, they don’t have any of their forebear’s work. Nor have they benefited from the sale of the pots. Their only material tie to Drake’s life remains a replica pot and plaque they received during their 2016 trip to South Carolina.
“I would like to have a pot,” said Baker. “I don’t see any harm in saying, ‘Yes, I would appreciate to have a pot or something to have in the family.’ ”
And in an era when museums are actively seeking to make amends for past transgressions, repatriating artworks and other objects looted during the colonial era, the question emerges: How should collecting institutions like the MFA treat works created by stolen labor?
“He made all these magnificent pots for free, and they’re still benefiting from him,” said Baker. “If you’re selling these pots, and you’re making this kind of money, something should be set aside for African American scholarships.”
Lasser, who interviewed the family at the museum for a video that accompanies the exhibition, said he was sensitive to their concerns.
“We’re just starting the conversation,” he said. “I would consider this show a failure if there wasn’t some outcome in two years when it’s done traveling.”
As the afternoon light began to stretch across the living room, numerous younger family members streamed into the home, greeting one another with hugs and warm hellos. Whitner, dressed in a pinstriped blazer, marveled at each of them, listing their professions: educators, engineers, and business executives among them.
What would Drake think if he could see them now?
“He wanted to get that message out to everybody,” she said, an open Bible on the table before her. “And here we are.”