At left. Leonard Todd with some of Dave’s pottery. Photo by Brook Facey.
Faithful readers with better than average recall and few distractions in their lives will remember a blog entry from a month ago when I first became enthralled with Leonard Todd’s book, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave. Since that time, I took time to read it cover-to-cover, and corresponded with the gracious Mr. Todd about his uniquely American story.
I sent him six questions, and received six answers, presented here unedited.
OBAB: Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to some questions about your book. First let me say that I enjoyed reading it very much. It's a powerful and poignant journey of discovery, and fascinating in the way your effort to piece together the life of this illusive historic figure is simultaneously a fleshing out of your own family history and roots. Could you begin by relating a little bit about the experience of first learning about Dave's pottery in The New York Times, and of the dawning realization that you had familial ties to the potter?
Leonard Todd: I can remember the exact date on which I first learned of Dave. I was in New York City, where I had lived for almost thirty years. I opened The New York Times on January 30, 2000, to find an article announcing an exhibition of his work. I read that, while in bondage, Dave had created pots of great size, utility, and beauty—many bearing original poems that he had inscribed on them while their clay was damp. The article indicated that he had lived in South Carolina, which increased my interest because I had been born and raised there—in Greenville—before moving north.
Information at the end of the piece, however, took my breath away: Dave had been owned for much of his life by pottery manufacturers named John Landrum and Lewis Miles. Their names matched those of ancestors of mine, who had lived in a small, central South Carolina town called Edgefield, not far from the Georgia border. I saw that Dave also had lived in Edgefield. With sudden understanding, I realized that my family had owned Dave!
That moment of discovery was like finding a door flung wide to the past: Through it, I could glimpse a complex world of clay and kilns and pottery workers—that I had known nothing of. I was pleased to find that I was linked to Dave, one of the south's great artisans, yet dismayed that slavery was the mechanism that connected us. Like many white southerners of my generation, I had grown up with a vague sense that my ancestors had been slaveholders. It seemed so long ago, however, that I regarded it as almost unreal. Now, I couldn't do that anymore.
OBAB: On the surface, this is an account of a skilled slave—exceptional in that he could read and write—whose utilitarian workmanship has transcended to the realm of valuable museum pieces. But the story is so much more than that with your personal connection to the artist. Like the author Edward Ball in Slaves in the Family, you were compelled to face potentially uncomfortable truths about family history. Quite frankly, it would have been easy to concentrate on the pottery and present this as the story of a well cared for servant of kindly masters, and left it at that (an apologist alternative still commonplace today). I thought you treated "the elephant in the room" honestly, and without flinching. Did you struggle with that at all, or do you feel far enough removed to be dispassionate in recounting simple history? Was there any resistance on the part of present-day family members along the lines of letting sleeping dogs lie?
Leonard Todd: My ancestors were Dave's owners throughout most of his life. When I began writing Carolina Clay, I was so uncomfortable with this fact that I bent over backwards to judge them harshly. Over the course of several drafts, however, I began to understand that my role was not to judge but simply to tell what happened. This would leave the reader free to come to his or her own conclusions.
By telling the story in a straightforward way, I hoped to reach a deeper understanding of both sides caught up in the slavery system. Only by seeing the slave owner and the slave in all their complexity—their strengths and their weaknesses—could I begin to penetrate the world that produced Dave.
My relatives were uniformly supportive of my project. Their only qualm was that I would not be able to find enough material about Dave in the historical record. And, indeed, mentions of him are sparse. As anyone who has tried to research the life of an individual slave can tell you, the institution of slavery so complicated the lives of those in bondage and at the same time so completely erased the record of what it had done that it is often impossible to discover what happened to them. I was able to put together clues about Dave and his fellow workers in the potteries of Edgefield by learning all I could about the men who owned those factories. In an odd way, I first had to know the slave owner before I could know the slave.
OBAB: I learned a lot about the history of pottery in this country from your book, all very interesting—in particular, the workings of groundhog kilns, the development of different glazes, and the mysterious adoption of some ancient Chinese techniques in antebellum America. You mentioned a new program at the Piedmont Technical College in Edgefield that planned to construct a groundhog kiln of the type Dave used. Your book's been out for a year or more—how's that kiln coming along? What a cool idea. At the very least they should get you to lead a class out to Pottersville (I know the location of the Stony Bluff kiln remains a secret—damn relic hunters!).
Leonard Todd: The ground was broken for the construction of the school's outdoor kiln on July 12, 2009. This date fell on the 200th anniversary of Dr. Abner Landrum's discovery of a bountiful supply of fine clay in Edgefield District, a discovery that led to a century of successful pottery making here. I was invited to be among the speakers at the ceremony. I took that opportunity to present a very special guest to the audience. She was Mrs. Thomasina Holmes Bouknight, who was the only person I had found who knew of a link to Dave in her life: He had made a large jar with an inscription on it for her mother, whose parents had been slaves in the area where Dave lived. She had recounted the fascinating history of the jar to me when I was writing my book (see page 205 of Carolina Clay). After I introduced her to the crowd, she rose and took a bow in response to the protracted applause. A few weeks later, she died. With her passing, the last known connection to Dave disappeared.
Though construction on the kiln is temporarily on hold, it will, when completed, be one of the major attractions of Edgefield. Its site is only a few steps from Main Street. Crowds will be able to gather for firings, as they did when Dave made his pots in the district.
OBAB: If tenderly cared for, do the surviving jugs and containers have a shelf life before they begin to crumble or disintegrate? Or will they effectively last forever, like stone?
Leonard Todd: I asked an expert to answer this one. He is master potter Gary Clontz, Coordinator of the Professional Pottery Program at Piedmont Technical College in Edgefield. He says, “Pots treated in a normal manner will last virtually forever. They will break, of course, if they are dropped, and they will crack if liquid is left in them to freeze. But there are pots in museums that are thousands of years old and still have their integrity.”
Dave touched on this question in one of his inscriptions. In June of 1854, his owner, Lewis Miles, apparently told him that the handle on the jug he had just made was not sturdy enough. To let posterity be the judge, Dave wrote, “Lm says this handle will crack” down the side of the jug at issue. More than 150 years later, the handle is still intact!
OBAB: Dave spent his entire adult life producing pottery. It's exciting to think that there are still extant pieces, like bits of treasure, scattered across the regional landscape. You write of a number of examples, such as an inscribed "Dave" pot sitting in an old barn, or the one in the yard of Thomasina Holmes Bouknight that she remembers playing around as a little girl. I'm dying to know if you've learned of any new pieces coming to light since the publication of your book ("Hmm, that old pot says 'Dave' on it"). Are there any pieces on permanent display (in Charleston or elsewhere)? Do you personally own any of Dave's pottery?
Leonard Todd: Word of several newly discovered Dave pots has come to me through my web site (www.leonardtodd.com). Because the world of pottery collecting enjoys its secrets, I am usually sworn to silence when the news arrives. I think I can safely say, however, that there will be some interesting auctions in the months to come!OBAB: I'm intrigued by the fact that—in the course of this exploration—you actually relocated with your wife from Manhattan to live in Edgefield, the center of the story. Has living there—amongst your own distant relatives, and certainly some descendants of Dave as well -- helped you gain a better understanding of Dave's life experience, or some other insight into the day and age in which he and your ancestors lived? Have you uncovered any more information on Dave from local sources since the publication of Carolina Clay (you mention the emergence of an African American historical society, and a surge in the writing of local histories, with the tantalizing prospect of new connections)?
I do not own any Dave pieces, but I take great pleasure in visiting the excellent examples on public display. The art museum in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, has recently purchased a magnificent jar inscribed with a poem that speaks of stars and bears (pronounced “bars” by Dave.) The Charleston Museum owns the two largest jars he ever made, turned on the same day in 1859. Two museums in Columbia, (the South Carolina State Museum and the McKissick Museum) own Dave pots, as do two museums in Atlanta (the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta History Center.) Other repositories of Dave's work are the Augusta Museum of History, the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison, Georgia, the Mint Museums in Charlotte, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Washington Historical Museum in Washington, Georgia, and the Smithsonian Institution.
Leonard Todd: Edgefield is one of those rare spots that the poet W. S. Merwin calls “an unguarded part of the past.” Once a powerful place—ten governors have come from here -- it virtually echoes with historical incident. By walking on the very sites where Dave and my ancestors lived and worked, I often begin to get a sense of what their lives were like. Some of the buildings and homes and landscape are unchanged since Dave's day.
Though I have located descendants of many of the players in Dave's story, I have not yet found members of his own family. I have traced what I believe is one branch of that family up through the 1930 census (see page 226 of Carolina Clay.) The 1940 census will be released to the public in a very few years. I have great hope that it will bring Dave's descendants closer to us.