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Photograph of A Black Family at the Hermitage Plantation, Savannah, GA

Chapter 04

Life & Work

African Americans who endured slavery created cultures instilled with wisdom, beauty, and vitality. Living a dual life—one of hardship and one of community and faith—enslaved people turned their focus towards family, knowledge, neighbors, and joy, wherever it might be found. They found pleasure in a job well done, a child well-loved, a song, a story, or a gathering that rejuvenated the soul. Life was more than enslavement.

Photograph of circular copper slave badge.

Section IIITo Create

Enslaved people applied traditions of metalwork, architecture, and engineering from western Africa. While building for others, they also built for themselves.

Photograph of Isaac Jefferson in black and gold case

Isaac Granger Jefferson, Enslaved Blacksmith, ca. 1845

To Create

Photograph of Isaac Jefferson in black and gold case

Isaac Granger Jefferson, Enslaved Blacksmith, ca. 1845

Drawing on generations of skill and artistry, from mentors and master craftsmen, African American men applied traditions of metalwork, architecture, and engineering from western Africa. While building for others, they also built for themselves. They instilled the pride of craftsmanship into their daily work and took time to create for loved ones. But skills came at a price—enslavers bought, sold, and rented craftsmen, often breaking families apart.

Most all the fine work around Wilmington was done by slaves. They called 'em artisans. None of 'em could read, but give 'em any plan an' they could follow it to the last line.

John Jackson, 1937

Photograph of Laide Williams' grave marker

Grave Marker for Laide Williams

Life

Photograph of Laide Williams' grave marker

Grave Marker for Laide Williams

African American crafts workers took pride in their skills and used them to improve life for themselves and their communities. They made everyday objects to sell at market and provide for their families. They also created for pleasure, decorating bowls, quilts, dresses, and furniture with their own style.

Solomon Williams used his metalworking skills to honor his wife, Laide Williams, after her death. He marked her grave and the graves of other enslaved men and women who lived in the Cane River community with beautiful hand-wrought crosses.

Photograph of Solomon William's double helix drill bit

Double Helix Drill Bit, before 1865

Work

Photograph of Solomon William's double helix drill bit

Double Helix Drill Bit, before 1865

As an enslaved blacksmith, Solomon Williams designed and forged this double-helix drill bit in 1820. It is a striking example of complex mathematics applied to metalwork. Blacksmiths like Williams held a position of respect and power in many plantation communities, derived from their skill, intellect, and relative mobility. Like other artisans, blacksmiths were often called upon to travel from plantation to plantation. This gave them knowledge of the neighborhood and ties to other enslaved people nearby.

Side chair created by Thomas Day. The chair has mahogany legs and back with scroll and floral detailing. There is an engraved floral motif on the center top rail. The seat is upholstered and filled with burlap. The fabric has cream, green, and red striped sections with black borders and an overall floral motif. The upholstery is worn with small areas of loss. The chairs springs are visible through the loose fabric backing below the seat.

Carved Side Chair by Thomas Day

Thomas Day, Master Craftsman

Side chair created by Thomas Day. The chair has mahogany legs and back with scroll and floral detailing. There is an engraved floral motif on the center top rail. The seat is upholstered and filled with burlap. The fabric has cream, green, and red striped sections with black borders and an overall floral motif. The upholstery is worn with small areas of loss. The chairs springs are visible through the loose fabric backing below the seat.

Carved Side Chair by Thomas Day

Thomas Day was a master craftsman of cabinetry and furnishing and was at one time considered North Carolina’s premier cabinetmaker. His elite clientele benefited from his artistry as he created unique architectural designs that complemented his ornate furniture.

Wrought iron collar with a three inch locking device and a three inch key. The collar is made up of two pieces of iron attached with a hinged, chain link back. Each end of the collar has an eyelet that can overlap and the lock can be inserted in to. The lock has a cylinder locking mechanism and a curved shackle hinged on one side. The key has an eyelet on one end and a shoulder in the middle of the shaft. The teeth of the key are threaded like a screw.

Iron Collar and Key

Enslavement

Wrought iron collar with a three inch locking device and a three inch key. The collar is made up of two pieces of iron attached with a hinged, chain link back. Each end of the collar has an eyelet that can overlap and the lock can be inserted in to. The lock has a cylinder locking mechanism and a curved shackle hinged on one side. The key has an eyelet on one end and a shoulder in the middle of the shaft. The teeth of the key are threaded like a screw.

Iron Collar and Key

Enslaved blacksmiths were often forced to forge restraints. Like other enslaved blacksmiths, Solomon Williams probably made shackles, neck irons, balls and chains, and thumbscrews that could have been used on members of his community, his family, or even himself.

Brown colored jar with two small handles on the upper portion of body near rim. Signed and dated by artist vertically at upper body.

Storage Jar Made and Signed by David Drake, 1852

Dave the Potter

Brown colored jar with two small handles on the upper portion of body near rim. Signed and dated by artist vertically at upper body.

Storage Jar Made and Signed by David Drake, 1852

Large stoneware jars stored grains and liquids. But David Drake, an enslaved man in South Carolina, made sure his jars were special. Known as Dave the Potter, he signed his pots, which were remarkable for their size and craftsmanship. He sometimes wrote poems on his jars, adding even more creativity to his work.

Charleston Slave Tags

As the nation’s second largest city, Charleston had a booming construction trade. Enslavers saw a business opportunity and rented out enslaved people with valuable skills. Each enslaved person who was rented had to wear a tag, or badge, that was regulated and taxed by the city. These badges identify a porter, mechanic, and servant.