New-York Historical Society’s Crafting Freedom: The Life and Legacy of Free Black Potter Thomas W. Commeraw contextualizes the life of Thomas Commeraw (c. 1771–1823), a freed Black man who became a prominent potter in New York City. Despite his success, Commeraw’s identity was misconstrued by scholars as interest in early American pottery rose at the turn of the 20th century. Commeraw was assumed to have been White and of French descent, due in part to the frequent misspelling of his name as “Commerau.” This misrepresentation was corrected in 2003 when a researcher discovered his name in the 1800 Federal Census, which listed him as Black. The exhibition includes a reproduction of this census, along with vessels, artworks, and ephemera that tell Commeraw’s personal stories, as well as the collective history of American pottery and the culture and politics of late 18th- and early 19th-century New York.
The exhibition features more than 20 utilitarian stoneware vessels by Commeraw alongside several by other potters from the time. Commeraw’s workshop produced thousands of objects, competing with the more than a dozen prominent potters working to provide for Manhattan’s population, which had exploded with European immigrants. His was the only Black-owned pottery business in New York City and he faced discrimination throughout his career. Many of his competitors were long-established, White craftspeople — some descendants of the family in whose home he had been enslaved. Over time, the heavy, durable wares became collectible items, surviving due to Commeraw’s skill and bearing his prominently engraved signature and workshop location, an example of early branding. Fragments of his work have been found across the New York area, as well as at distant ports and sites around the world, demonstrating his reach.
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In addition to his bold signature, Commeraw adorned the surfaces with decorative motifs that were applied with cobalt and changed with the trends, for instance, flowers and patterns that resemble undulating drapery sways. Examples of competing potters’ work provide a close look at the degrees of skill and the development of styles in pottery at the time.
The show preserves both Commeraw’s history and American history more broadly. Cylindrical oyster jars, for example, document the legacy of Black oystermen who led the trade at the time and used jars to hold pickled oysters. Many commissioned Commeraw to make these, stamped with their names and addresses, a savvy move that echoes the potter’s own branding. The oyster trade was one of the ways freed Black New Yorkers asserted their place in society and fought endless oppression. Other ways included political debate, a form of activism in which Commeraw engaged, as well as artistic and literary expression, which gave rise to new Black endeavors such as schools, theaters, and newspapers.
Ephemera from these Black ventures is on view, as are engravings, paintings, letters, and journals that chronicle the political and economic circumstances of Commeraw and New York society in general. After working successfully from the late 1790s to 1819, he faced financial hardship, as did many business owners after the War of 1812. At the same time, he decided that citizenship was impossible under increased oppression and, in 1820, he and 80 other freed Black people emigrated to Sierra Leone on the first American Colonization Society (ACS) voyage. The trip was deadly for many and was significant in demonstrating how the ACS perpetuated racist views and supported the notion that freed Black people shouldn’t assimilate into society. Commeraw stayed in Sierra Leone for two years before returning to the US. He reported the experience in newspapers, reproductions of which are in the show, alongside similar harrowing accounts from other Black settlers. In 1823, shortly after returning to the US, he died in Baltimore.
The exhibition tells far more than the story of Commeraw’s life. The objects and ephemera on view provide a remarkable narrative of New York society at the time, a testament to the research that has been done for the exhibition and since his true identity was discovered in 2003 to recontextualize Commeraw’s work. While his story is personal, it reflects the reality that freed Black people faced across New York. The exhibition is a powerful reminder of the significance of decorative arts and material culture in preserving and sharing collective history and ensuring that both successes and oppression are not forgotten.
Crafting Freedom: The Life and Legacy of Free Black Potter Thomas W. Commeraw continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side Manhattan) through May 28. The exhibition was curated by New-York Historical Society Vice President and Museum Director Margi Hofer, potter and Commeraw researcher Mark Shapiro, and Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History Allison Robinson.