The valued decorative arts, architecture, and handcrafts of the early American South depended on African American hands, a truth highlighted by folklorist John Michael Vlach in the seminal exhibit, “The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts” at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1978. Yet, some forty years later, too few historians, museum curators, and certainly visitors to the public history institutions of the United States are presented with that truth. The Black Craftspeople Digital Archive (BCDA) seeks to showcase Black craftsmanship while bringing to light the stories of Black craftspeople.
Founded in 2019, the BCDA brings together scholars, students, museums and archives professionals and the public to collaborate and spread the story of Black craftspeople. The BCDA originally began as a project founded by Dr. Tiffany Momon and inspired by her research into John “Quash” Williams, an enslaved and later free Black master carpenter responsible for the carpentry and joinery work on the c. 1750 Charles Pinckney Mansion in Charleston, South Carolina. Momon’s research into Williams led to the development of a map tracing Williams’s life around Charleston and soon, that map incorporated places associated with the enslaved Black craftsmen who aided Williams in the construction of the Pinckney Mansion. By Fall 2019, the project expanded to include more Black craftspeople in Charleston involved in a variety of trades. The archive continues to grow daily.
The BCDA is not fully comprehensive. Within the records are thousands of mentions of Black craftspeople, some only listed by trade and not by name. This project draws inspiration from several sources including Ronald Lewis and James Newton’s The Other Slaves: Mechanics, Artisans, and Craftsmen (1978) which highlights the role of enslaved craftspeople in the early development of America. Additionally, “The Geographic Spread of Charleston’s Mercantile Community, 1732-1767,” written by Jeanne A. Calhoun, Martha A. Zierden and Elizabeth A. Paysinger featured in The South Carolina Historical Magazine (Vol. 86, No. 3 (Jul., 1985), pp. 182-220), offers a spatial analysis of Charleston’s merchants and craftspeople through an examination of newspaper advertisements that revealed locations. The BCDA complements the work completed by Lewis, Newton, Calhoun, Zierden, and Paysinger by expanding upon their findings and interpreting the lives of Black craftspeople through their locations, the objects they created, and their overall experiences.
The BCDA will grow to include black craftspeople outside of the eighteenth-century South Carolina Lowcountry.
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