In February 1919, Capt. Samuel G. Stoney donated an enormous stoneware jug to the Charleston Museum in South Carolina. No one at the museum had any notion where the jug, which measured 282/3 inches tall, had originated. They were even more baffled by the writing inscribed on its surface: a date (May 13, 1859), a two-line verse that was partially illegible and what appeared to be the potter's signature. The museum displayed the jug with a plea for more information about its origin. Two months later, a letter arrived from a county agricultural agent alerting the museum to the existence of another jug of the same size and bearing the same date, owned by a resident of Ridge Spring, S.C. The verse on that jug read "Great & Noble Jar/hold Sheep goat or bear." A fascinating story was beginning to unfold, reaching back at least four decades before the Civil War. It became clear that it was the biography of one remarkable man, a slave named Dave, a master potter and a poet who had, against all odds, created some of the most enduring works of American craftsmanship.
By the time Leonard Todd caught up with the story in 2000, Dave was a well-known historical figure. As Todd explains in his fascinating account, "Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave," he became intrigued by a newspaper story about an exhibition of Dave's work, which mentioned that he had been owned by Edgefield, S.C., families named Miles and Landrum. Those were names in Todd's family tree, one with deep roots in Edgefield. Suddenly, he realized, "This was my family I was reading about." It was the first step on a journey that would eventually cause him to move to Edgefield, where he grappled with Dave's story and how that story interlaced with Todd's family history, what that history revealed about life in the antebellum South and what the weight of that inheritance means to a man in the 21st century.
"Carolina Clay" is the latest book by an author with slave owners among his ancestors (Edward Ball's "Slaves in the Family" is the most notable). Neither an apologist nor a high-minded scourge, Todd confronts the tragic actions of his forebears with dispassionate honesty. He is equally levelheaded when assessing Dave's accomplishments. He makes no great claims for Dave as a poet, nor does he overstate Dave's accomplishments as a potter (hard to overstate the value of an artisan whose individual works now go at auction for low six-figure sums). What's most admirable is his refusal to speculate beyond the meager record handed down by a society that rejected the notion that slaves were fully human. In antebellum South Carolina, it was forbidden for slaves to know how to read or write. So Dave's poetry and his penchant for signing his work signals not only his own bravery but at least some modest enlightenment on the part of his owners. The tragedy, of course, is that no one else thought to write down anything about this remarkable man, whose artistry and strength of character were forgotten until that day in 1919 when the first of his works arrived at the Charleston Museum. Dave, on his own and against all odds, had to find his own way to immortality.