Research On Slave Opens Doorway To Writer's Past
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Sometimes, a writer goes in search of a story to tell. Other times, the story finds the writer. That's what happened to Leonard Todd. His new book is called "Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave." He remembers the exact day Dave found him. It was January 30th, 2000.
Mr. LEONARD TODD (Author, "Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave"): I opened the New York Times to find an article on a slave potter. I was quite fascinated by him, especially because he was from South Carolina where - and I had been born and raised in South Carolina. But in the last paragraph of the article, it took my breath away. I saw the names of two of my ancestors listed as his owners. And it was like coming upon a doorway to the past.
SEABROOK: Leonard Todd moved back to South Carolina and spent the next eight years investigating the stories of his ancestors and the slave potter named Dave. He became David Drake after the Civil War, and Dave created some of the most prized pots of the 19th century South - churns, pitchers, jugs, even 40-gallon storage jars. They're everyday containers, but Dave brought them alive with curves and rich glazes of purple, cream, and bronze. And then, says Leonard Todd, there was something else.
Mr. TODD: The thing that lifts Dave's pottery above all other pots as far as I'm concerned, is - are two things. One, he signed his pots, which was unheard of for a slave to do. In other words, he took ownership of these pots. And in addition to that, on some of his greatest jars, he wrote poems of his own composition. They were usually two lines, couplets in iambic tetrameter, and they are unbelievably interesting. They are documents of slave life.
SEABROOK: They are. Some of them are just breath-taking. There's one - I saw a leopard and a lion's face. Then I felt the need of grace.
Mr. TODD: Yes. And what's fascinating about his poems is that you - if you know the general outline of Dave's life, and you know the background of what's going on at the time that he wrote the poems - because all of them are dated - you can begin to put together a kind of journal of Dave's life, a journal on his jars. For example, I've been able to trace what I believe is the story of his wife in his poems. Shall I tell you a little bit about that.
SEABROOK: Yes, please.
Mr. TODD: Well, in 1840, he wrote this poem. What's better than kissing while we both are at fishing, which is so amusing and so touching. And then he follows up with it six months later with another trick is worse than this. Dearest miss, spare me a kiss. So he was clearly smitten. And from my research, I have been able to identify who I think was dearest miss.
Mr. TODD: I think she was another slave who belonged to the master that Dave had at that time, Reverend John Landrum (ph), and her name was Luisa. And according to my research, they had six children together. Tragically, in 1847 after the death of Reverend John Landrum, they were cruelly separated in a slave sale, and the entire family was each sold to different masters.
SEABROOK: I wonder if that's when the inscription from another of his pots comes up that says, I wonder where is all my relation. Friendship to all and every nation.
Mr. TODD: That's exactly what I think, too. He's referring back to that terrible day of separation in my mind.
SEABROOK: It's heart-breaking. It's heart-breaking them.
Mr. TODD: It's heart-breaking. And also, what's unique about these poems is that they were written while he was in slavery. A number of slaves wrote autobiographies after they had escaped from slavery and were, in effect, out of danger, but Dave wrote about his life while he was in slavery and could suffer consequences for what he wrote.
SEABROOK: Can I say, it seems like you weren't just inspired by the fact that this was an artisan slave who had connections to your family, but you felt kind of responsible in a way to tell his story.
Mr. TODD: Well, I did. I think southerners grow up with perhaps the knowledge that their families owned slaves - a general knowledge of that. But when you're faced with an individual slave, a name of a slave and a wife who's name you know of the slave, you just can't ignore the story, and I wondered how I could possibly turn around the fact that my family had owned this man. It was an unhappy fact for me.
Was there anything I could do? I couldn't make up for it. I know I couldn't atone for it. But if I could take the letters and documents that my family had written on their white pages and bring them together with Dave's poems written on his brown jars, perhaps I could begin to uncover the story of Dave and bring light on his marvelous accomplishments.
SEABROOK: Leonard Todd is the author of "Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave." He was in the studios of WLTR in Columbia, South Carolina. Thanks very much.
Mr. TODD: Thank you, Andrea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.