Met’s Show of Black Potters in Edgefield Decried by Local Experts for ‘Disturbing Error’

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition of Black potters from Edgefield, South Carolina, has been praised by many critics, with the New York Times’s Roberta Smith labeling the show “revelatory” upon its opening in September. But a group of experts took a different view when they decried the exhibition earlier this month in an editorial in the local paper, the Edgefield Advertiser, accusing the curators of ignoring historical evidence.

The editorial, written by historian Leonard Todd, focused largely on a detail in the curators’ telling of the life story of David Drake, one of the exhibition’s key artists. Better known by the name Dave for years, Drake began making pottery while he was enslaved in the mid-19th century, adorning his vessels with poetic messaging at a time when it was illegal for Black people to read and write.

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An elderly gentleman is seen in partial profile in a black-and-white photograph. He wears a collared shirt; the background is blurry.

Drake’s pottery continues to remain influential, with contemporary artists such as Simone Leigh and Theaster Gates contributing related works to the Met show.

In the catalogue and the audio guide for “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” the curators of the show—Adrienne Spinozzi, Ethan Lasser, and James Young—discuss how Drake lost one of his legs. According to some who knew him, Drake fell asleep on a railroad track while inebriated and was dismembered by an oncoming train. But, Lasser and scholar Michael J. Bramwell write in the catalogue, “At a time when amputations were standard forms of punishment for offenses like reading, writing, and self-liberating, it seems plausible that Dave’s missing limb was not the result of a steam-train accident.”

Todd, who in 2008 wrote a biography of Drake titled Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave, called that assertion a “disturbing error” in the Edgefield Advertiser article.

“Without one piece of evidence having to do with Dave or his owner or his townor [sic] even the railroad, the life story of one of the great Black artists of the 19th Century will have been dramatically altered,” Todd wrote.

Among those who signed his letter in the Edgefield Advertiser were ​​Harris Bailey, Jr., a historian of Old Edgefield; ​Drew Lanham, an Edgefield native who won a MacArthur “genius” grant last year; ​Justin Guy, a potter currently working in Edgefield; and ​Tonya Browder, an archivist based in Edgefield.

“It is true that such cruelties as amputation took place during the terrible years of slavery,” Todd said in an email to ARTnews. “We are simply saying that there is nothing to show that such amputation was inflicted on Dave. We have invited the curators to come forward with evidence that it was, but they have not done so. General theories, yes. Local evidence, no.”

In response to written questions about the controversy, a Met Museum spokesperson told ARTnews, “As described in the exhibition and materials, we believe that the account that Dave lost his leg in a train accident should be examined with a healthy dose of critical skepticism, and that, given the larger historical contexts, other possibilities should be considered. We fully appreciate that other scholars may have different views, as this kind of discourse is precisely the type of outcome we seek in our scholarly work.”

The “disturbing error” is a complicated one, given that many have regarded the narrative of Drake’s amputation with a degree of uncertainty.

A ceramic jar with a written message scrawled on one of its sides.

An 1858 storage jar by David Drake.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Carey Dickson, a formerly enslaved man, was the one who stated the railroad story on the record in a 1930 interview with Laura M. Bragg, the director of the Charleston Museum. It has been repeated several times over, in Todd’s biography and elsewhere.

The New York Times, when it posthumously profiled Drake in 2021, pointed out that Todd may have cast the artist’s enslavement until 1868 “in a favorable light.” This was likely an allusion to Todd’s family history: Todd’s great-great-grandfather, Lewis Miles, enslaved Drake, and it was under Miles’s ownership that Drake wrote the poems for which he is now famous. “I don’t want to be in a position to say my ancestor was a good slave owner,” Todd once told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s almost an oxymoron. But I think there was a certain trust between these two men.”

In his Edgefield Advertiser letter, Todd claimed he sought other historians’ advice so as not “to protect my ancestors from the judgment of history—and perhaps to protect myself, as well”—and that the group approached the “Hear Me Now” curators together with concerns. They asked the curators to append a note that the amputation narrative was disputed, but the curators rebuffed them, according to Todd. (A Met spokesperson said they had received Todd’s request, but had never promised to add his proposed text.)

Todd said his Edgefield Advertiser letter was meant to “prevent this new and unfounded theory from becoming a permanent part of David Drake’s story.”

Young, a co-curator of “Hear Me Now,” said in an email to ARTnews, “In the end, this issue raises a crucial and pressing question: Who Owns Dave’s Story? The curatorial team has long been committed to exploring the history of Old Edgefield pottery in such a way that democratizes and expands debate, rather than closing off conversation or privileging any single point of view or interest group.”

After its run finishes at the Met in February, the show will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in March, and later to the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

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