Saturday, February 24, 2024

Colonial Williamsburg museum pieces spotlight African-American history

silver spoons
A rare pair of marked teaspoons by an African American silversmith made between 1815 and 1830 are now part of the collection of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

If you’re looking for a way to observe Black History Month, try the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

During the last six months, the museums have acquired a number of significant African-American artifacts and works of art, according to a release from Colonial Williamsburg.

The acquisitions come as part of a broader effort to diversity their collections.

“Colonial Williamsburg has long believed that art and artifacts speak loudly about the people, places, and events of the past,” Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s Carlisle Humelisne chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums said in a release. “Because we strive to tell the broader American story, it is important that we continue to seek out those objects that speak to the African-American experience during the colonial and early national periods. These newly acquired works address that mission handsomely.”

Woodworking Devices

A "plow plane" such as this was used to cut grooves into boards. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
A “plow plane” such as this was used to cut grooves into boards. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Among the new objects is a collection of almost 250 pre-Revolutionary woodworking planes by Cesar Chelor, who is considered the earliest known African American toolmaker in North America. The planes were collected by David V. Englund of Seattle, who envisioned having the collection at Colonial Williamsburg for sharing and study.

Chelor was a slave and apprentice to Francis Nicholson, a plane maker in Wrentham, Mass. When Nicholson died in 1753, his will gave Chelor his freedom, 10 acres of land and tools to continue his craft.

More than 700 pieces made by Nicholson and Chelor are known to have survived, including the Chelor artifacts now at Colonial Williamsburg.

“The Englund collection encompasses the spectrum of wordworking planes crafted by the first dynasty of truly American tool-makers,” Erik Goldstein, senior curator of mechanical arts and numismatics, said in the release. “This unique assemblage of colonial planes will serve as a core of Colonial Williamsburg’s woodworking tool collection.”

Silver Spoons

Also among the new items are two rare early 19th-century silver teaspoons by Peter Brentzon, a free man of color who was born around 1783 in the what are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands. He trained in Philadelphia as a silversmith and worked there and in St. Croix.

“Few objects survive to bear testament to the work of enslaved and free people of color as silversmiths in early America,” Janine E. Skerry, senior curator of metals, said in a release. “We are very pleased to share these spoons as examples of the diversity of craftsmanship on these shores.”

Stoneware Jar

historic pottery in CW collection
An enslaved African-American potter, David Drake, worked in South Carolina for various masters for more than 50 years. He sometimes inscribed verses on his ceramics.

A signed stoneware jar made in 1849 by David Drake, an enslaved African- American potter in South Carolina, also ranks among the recent acquisitions.

Drake’s jars were often used for food storage. Though it was illegal for slaves to read, he signed many of his pieces. The museums’ object is an almost 17-inch container with a five-gallon capacity; it is signed “Mr. Miles Dave,” a reference to Lewis J. Miles, Drake’s owner, and dated Oct. 15, 1849.

“The work of David Drake is important for many reasons,” Suzanne Findlen Hood, curator of ceramics and glass, said in the release. “It speaks to the role enslaved labor played in the manufacture of utilitarian wares in nineteenth-century South Carolina; it helps to illuminate some of the complexities of that system; and most of all it gives us a glimpse into the life of this man and the world he inhabited.”

Silk Work Bag

Abolitionist bag at CW
This pink silk bag makes a rare political statement. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Another new acquisition is a pink silk work bag made in England in 1827 by the Birmingham Female Society for the Relief of British Negro Slaves.

The drawstring sacks were used by English and American women to carry pocketbooks, keys and handkerchiefs. Though often embroidered with flowers, the workbag acquired by Colonial Williamsburg has an image of a slave, chained to the ground and kneeling. It also depicts a group of slaves who are being whipped by their master.

“While many fancy workbags survive from this time period, these politically and morally charged women’s accessories are seldom found and make this piece a unique acquisition to the Colonial Williamsburg’s collection,” Neal Hurst, associate curator of costumes and textiles, said in a release.

Joan Quigley
Joan Quigley
Joan Quigley is a former Miami Herald business reporter, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an attorney. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post,, and Talking Points Memo. Her recent book, Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital, was shortlisted for the 2017 Mark Lynton History Prize. Her first book, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, won the 2005 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.

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