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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.