February is Black History Month, an annual, national recognition of the people and stories of nameless, faceless contributors to our country’s story that are finally getting the recognition their actions, inventions, and craft so richly deserve.
Leading the effort to publicly and historically recognize the achievements and contributions of African Americans was Carter G. Woodson (December 19, 1875 – April 3, 1950), known as the “father of black history.”
Woodson was an American historian, author, and journalist, and one of the first known scholars to study African-American history. His scholarship led him to found the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and The Journal of Negro History in 1916. In February 1926, Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week,” the precursor of Black History Month. This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14, both of which dates black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century.
Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, endorsed in cities across the country as an unofficial holiday. In February 1969, black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University proposed extending the annual commemoration into a Black History Month. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State a year later, from January 2 to February 28, 1970.
In 1976, Black History Month was formally recognized by then-President Gerald Ford during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial. He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Over the last 50 years, there has been a movement among historians, material culturists, cultural anthropologists, educators, and museum curators to bring to light the accomplishments and stories of marginalized and unknown contributors to America’s history in meaningful and reflective ways. The unearthing of connections between makers and objects of the 18th through early 20th centuries is scholarship that is changing the historical narrative and what it is people look to collect.
In this issue celebrating Black History Month, we tell the story of several African-American makers you may not know, although their contributions or their work you might find quite familiar.
Cesar Chelor, born in 1720 in Wrentham, MA, was an African-American woodworker, toolmaker, and plane-maker. Enslaved by the earliest documented American plane maker Francis Nicholson, Chelor would inherit both his freedom and his workshop upon Nicholson’s death, with the tools and materials to independently own and operate his own tool-making business as a free African-American. Chelor is the earliest documented African-American plane maker in North America. In 2016, Colonial Williamsburg acquired one of the largest collections of Nicholson and Chelor planes from the Estate of David Englund, attesting to their craftsmanship and innovation in creating tools for all trades.
Thomas Jennings, born a free man in 1791 in New York City to free African-American parents, was an independent business owner and noted tailor when he created a formula in 1820 for cleaning fabric so as not to soak the fibers and ruin his customers’ expensive clothes. He filed a patent for his process of “dry scouring” cloth, the forerunner to modern day dry cleaning, under the Patent Act of 1793, and was granted U.S. patent 3306x on March 3, 1821. Jennings’ patent, the first-ever issued to an African-American, officially recognized him not only as a maker but, more importantly, as a U.S. citizen, a designation not recognized for the enslaved or even a free African-American in the early decades of the 19th century. According to The Inventive Spirit of African-Americans by Patricia Carter Sluby, Jennings was so proud of his patent letter, which was signed by Secretary of State—and later president—John Quincy Adams, he hung it in a gilded frame over his bed.
In the history of early American culture, there is little specific mention of African-American Art but that is changing with a market focus on “folk art.” Many of these artists have come to be prized and collected by museums throughout the country, although they have not yet achieved recognition outside the narrow categories of “self-taught,” “naïve,” “visionary,” “vernacular,” or “outsider” labels. One such artist to emerge in his own right is Bill Traylor, who, born a slave and self-taught, would come to be known as one of the most important artists discovered in the twentieth century. In 2021, a Bill Traylor painting went for $293,750 at a Christie’s auction. Traylor’s work has also been on display at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, among others.
Born circa 1800, David Drake (known as “Dave the Potter”) first appears in history in an 1818 mortgage of Harvey Drake as a “boy about 17 years old.” Dave acquired Drake when he purchased a stoneware business owned by his uncle, Abner Landrum. Dave was a skilled “turner,” a high-valued asset in the stoneware business and within the Edgefield Pottery district in South Carolina. For most of the nineteenth century, this region held dozens of family-connected potteries, each producing massive amounts of wares for use throughout the south. Dave’s workmanship notwithstanding, perhaps most noteworthy for his time and place was his proclivity for signing, dating and, on at least thirty known occasions, inscribing poetic verse on his finished wares; verse that, as far as the law was concerned, never should have been put there in the first place. A world record was set this past summer when an 1858 25-gallon poem jar with four handles went for $1.560 million at a Crocker Farm auction.
These are but a few of the stories that continue to emerge and recognize the importance of previously marginalized contributors to, and our understanding of, the American experience. And with that understanding and appreciation, new value is placed on their accomplishments, not only in the historical narrative but in the collectible marketplace, as well.