Just a short drive away in Winston-Salem, Old Salem and their Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), offer amazing opportunities for glimpse into the past. Representing objects made from across the entire antebellum south, the MESDA records history through crafts like furniture, silver and pottery. These objects serve as windows into the lives of their craftsman and users; citizen or slave.
On Friday, Feb. 10, I had the chance to go on a tour at the MESDA titled: “Behind the Scenes Tour: The Hidden Legacy of African American Craftsmen.” The tour will be held every Friday in February. Led by curator Daniel Ackermann, the tour meant to recognize the hidden hands behind the artifacts displayed. Of course, there are the master craftsmen, but who else was with them in the shop- who really did the work? I was fascinated by how impactful these objects were; each aesthetically beautiful, they told unique stories that reflect America’s flawed history.
First on the tour, a beautifully crafted staircase from Edenton, NC. Ackermann explained that the house where it was found is no longer standing; however it once belonged to a man named Jacob Norcom in the mid 1800s. A wealthy Edenton doctor, Norcom owned a slave named Harriet Jacobs. Jacobs, referred to by Ackermann, was like “a female Fredrick Douglas.” Now, her book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” honors her memory and offers new information on slaves’ lives and conditions. Interestingly, in the autobiography, Jacobs references these very stairs.
Next, was the gorgeous silver teapot made by Alexander Petrie from Charleston, SC. Petrie was a renowned white silversmith, famous for his intricately designed teapots. However, records show that Petrie’s workshop was greatly assisted by a slave named Abraham. In fact, Petrie’s shop still ran even after he stated his retirement. When Petrie died, Abraham was racistly deemed his most valuable “object,” and purchased by another silversmith. This teapot then, serves as a reminder of all the master craftsmen that were hidden by the terrible reality of their time.
Along with the teapot, small metal tags from antebellum Charleston were displayed. Ackermann explained that in the cosmopolitan city, owners would often led their talented slaves out to other owners. Then, they would be paid for their services and their owners would receive part of their payment. Afraid of slave uprisings, slaves were given identity tags stating their occupation. The two featured in the MESDA read “servant” and “mechanic,” serving as a chilling reminder of their cruel treatment.
Robert Walker was one of the most famous cabinet makers in the Chesapeake region. Creating intricately decorates wardrobes like the one in this tour, Walker too had hidden craftsmen in his workshop. Evidence suggests that Walker had slave apprenticeships. In these contracts, the slave master strictly outlined the treatment of a slave so that there was no confusion; in they knew and recognized the skill of their slaves, and still regarded them as inhuman.
After the wardrobe, Ackermann presented a pot crafted by South Carolina slave David Drake. On the massive storage jar, he inscribed “L.m. nover 3, 1858/ Dave.” “L.m.” is his slave master, “nover 3, 1858” is the date,” and he signs his name “Dave.” On the front side of the pot, Dave references a passage from revelations by inscribing “I saw a leopard & a lion’s face then I felt the need of — Grace.”
Lastly, Ackermann presented a dressing bureau made by Thomas Day from Milton, North Carolina. A free African American, Day was one of the most prominent furniture craftsmen in the state. Day, being the third generation of his family to be free, still had no standing in court. In order to marry a free women from Virginia, the state needed to pass a law in order for her to move. To make this possible, Day’s white friends and neighbors signed a petition. Further, Day was fortunate enough to have white companions to help him. He represents the interesting “inbetween” of not being a free citizen, nor a slave.
The objects presented in this tour offer a side of history that I never thought of before. Objects like these — furniture, silverware, pottery — that make living possible are overlooked; however, it is important to recognize their significance. Also, credit is due to the hidden masters behind the creation of these gorgeous objects.