As part of our celebration of Black History Month, I would like to expose you to names and concepts that may be new to you or that you would like to learn more about. Today, we are profiling Joshua Johnson and David Drake, both Black Antebellum Artists. Many details of their personal histories, like many Black Americans of that time, has been lost to time. However, as artists they created a lasting legacy that can be viewed today.
It is believed he was born in bondage to a Black mother and a White father possibly in Maryland, though it is very hard to say what his origins are with any certainty. All that can be confirmed is that if he was born in bondage it was a shorter condition for him than others. This is because his name appears in the City Directory of Baltimore that was published in 1796-1824 and that directory did not include slaves. It is also assumed that he was passable in complexion, as an asterisk does not appear by his name in that directory. However, in the 1817 directory he appears as part of the "free householders of color". This is often how searching for old records to complete genealogy can get confusing for some Black people. My own grandfather is listed as white, black and mulatto depending on which records you're looking at.
While the details of his life are obscured by time what is known is he was a self taught painter. There is some speculation that he may have had some formalized training, but again it can not be verified by any other historical records. He is attributed to painting many of the wealthy and middle class of Baltimore during his time, as Baltimore had a large free population that made the climate easier for a Black creative like Johnson. Johnson's artistic subjects were mostly White, but he has two Black men in the legacy of his work that have not been identified. The circumstances and date of his death are unknown but his art can be found in the Smithsonian.
He was born enslaved in around Edgefield, South Carolina, sometime around 1801; that area is also known as Pottersville. The man who kept Drake in bondage ran a stoneware factory on his plantation which is probably how Drake learned the trade. Drake was known for his large size jugs and was one of the few potters that made large capacity jars in that area. Drake also probably worked as a typesetter after he was sold to another individual that produced the local newspaper, which is probably how Drake learned to read and write. It was illegal to teach slaves to read or write and there were harsh punishments if slaves were found even attempting to learn. Drake would obtain his freedom after The Civil War.
What makes Drake so interesting is that he was a potter who wrote on his stoneware even prior to obtaining his freedom, which was a dangerous choice. His earliest signed pots are dated to the 1830s. Many of his signed works were purely informational, such as saying what the pot was for or who owned the pot. Though the more interesting pieces have verses of poetry he composed himself or bible verses. He would sign them Dave and at the time was known as Dave the Slave or Dave the Potter. Today, Dave's art is valued at around $100,000 or more a pot.
We sadly know very little about how these men lived their lives. It is because slavery and racism did not deem these men worthy of being remembered by historians. Yet their art remains and has become part of the artistic community that they were most likely denied access to during their lives. If you have a chance this year I encourage you to buy Black art and support Black visual artists. Black art and creativity is often one of the few ways that Black people can escape racism and oppression in many periods in history and... in some ways that is still true today.