NEW YORK, NY.-
This winter, the New-York Historical Society
presents Crafting Freedom: The Life and Legacy of Free Black Potter Thomas W. Commeraw, the first exhibition to bring overdue attention to Thomas W. Commeraw, a successful Black craftsman who was long assumed to be white. Formerly enslaved, Commeraw rose to prominence as a free Black entrepreneur, owning and operating a successful pottery in the city. Over a period of two decades, he amassed property, engaged in debates over state and national politics, and participated in New York Citys free Black community. On view January 27 May 28, 2023, the exhibition explores Commeraws multi-faceted history as a craftsman, business owner, family man, and citizen through approximately 40 pieces of stoneware produced by Commeraw and his competitors between the late 1790s and 1819, in the largest presentation of his work to date. Alongside these pieces are the primary documents that enabled historians to reconstruct the arc of his professional career and personal life, and through them convey a deeper understanding of free Black society in New York in the years between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
Crafting Freedom continues the tradition at New-York Historical of presenting groundbreaking exhibitions that reveal the complex dimensions of race in the early years of New York City and our nation, said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. Through this exhibition of Thomas W. Commeraw and his work, we gain an in-depth understanding of a Black artisans life in New York, while also seeing how our understanding of history continues to evolve to give us greater insight into issues that affect our society today. This exhibition will transform our visitors perspective on New Yorks free Black community, challenging long-held myths about post-revolutionary race relations in northern states.
This exhibition illuminates the story of a man who was emancipated as a child, went on to own and operate his own business, and advocated for the rights of full citizenship for his fellow Black Americans, said Margi Hofer, New-York Historicals vice president and museum director, who co-curated the exhibition. While Commeraws distinctive pottery has been admired and collected for over a century, his true story has been obscured for far too long. It is incredibly meaningful that we are able to bring to light a true portrait of the man, both as a citizen and as a craftsman.
The New York City directories first list Thomas Commerau working as a potter in 1795, living near Pot Bakers Hill in the vicinity of todays City Hall. By 1797, he had established his own workshop at Corlears Hook on the East River. There, he produced vessels in the local tradition, often decorated with distinctive flourishes of swags, tassels, and bowknot motifs filled with vivid cobalt. Stoneware vessels were essential kitchenware in that era and stored everything from milk, butter, salted meat, and preserves to molasses, cider, and beer. Commeraw also manufactured oyster jars for the citys oystermen, who were predominantly from the free Black community. His crocks and jugs traveled on ships to ports along the eastern seaboard and as far afield as Guyana and Norway. Most of the Commeraw vessels that survive today are boldly stamped with his name and the location of his pottery at Manhattans Corlears Hook. In addition to signaling pride in his work, Commeraws prominent branding helped him attract and retain customers.
In addition to revealing Commeraws successes and struggles as a pottery owner in a city riven by racism, the exhibition explores his commitment to securing a better future for the Black community through his work with abolitionist, political, religious, and mutual aid organizations. In 1790, the majority of Black New Yorkers were enslaved. By 1810, 6 out of 7 were free. Businessmen like Commeraw faced daunting challenges, not just raising capital but building civic and religious organizations to support the Black community. Free Black men had voted in New York since the Revolution, but in 1811, the state legislature passed a law to suppress Black voters, requiring them to submit a Certificate of Freedom that included a sworn statement from a third party attesting to the voters free status and residency and to pay a filing fee. A highlight of the exhibition is the 1813 Certificate of Freedom held by New-York Historicals Patricia D. Klingenstein Library that bears Commeraws confident signature as witness. It is the only confirmed manuscript in his hand. The exhibition also examines how Black New Yorkers responded to economic and political oppression by developing a lively cultural and artistic community.
The final chapter in Commeraws story concerns his effort to promote the emigration of Black settlers to Sierra Leone, as the prospect of full citizenship for Black New Yorkers dimmed. Commeraw traveled there with his extended family in 1820 on the first voyage of the American Colonization Society. He arrived full of optimism and plans to found a Black republic; instead, he experienced unimaginable hardship and tragedy. What began as a venture for political rights ended as a struggle for survival. Many of the settlers died of malaria, including Commeraws wife and niece. He returned to the U.S. in 1822 and died the following year in Baltimore. The exhibition closes with a coda that describes future generations of the Commeraw family carrying forward the potters entrepreneurial energy and political engagement.
Additionally, Queens-based ceramic artist and activist Sana Musasama has created a new work that reflects on Commeraws life as a New York potter, his transatlantic odyssey of two centuries ago, and her own artistic journey. Passages will be installed in New-York Historicals grand lobby, the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Gallery, to introduce the exhibition and encourage visitors to contemplate how Commeraws story continues to resonate today.
Crafting Freedom is co-curated by New-York Historicals Vice President and Museum Director Margi Hofer, potter and Commeraw researcher Mark Shapiro, and Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Womens History and Public History Allison Robinson. Leslie M. Harris, professor of history and African American studies at Northwestern University, served as scholarly advisor. The exhibition next travels to the Fenimore Art Museum, where it will be on view from June 24 - September 24, 2023.