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Taking a Hands-On Approach to History

Taking a Hands-On Approach to History

Assistant Art Professor Researches Pottery Made by Former Slaves and Creates Pieces to Honor That Legacy


When she was making mud cakes on her grandparents’ farm as a child, little did Earline Green know that one day she would not only teach others to work in clay, but also study and create pottery to honor a historical legacy. Her interest in working with clay developed while she was teaching middle school in Dallas a few decades ago.

Green, who joined Tarrant County College in 2008, holds a Master of Fine Arts in Ceramics from Texas Woman’s University. She has tremendous respect for the medium and the history associated with it.

“Clay is a challenging medium that requires PATIENCE,” said Green. “The best part of the year is when (the students) start taking things home. If the trash is empty, I know it has been a good year. When they leave and they are smiling, you can’t beat that. You can’t replicate that feeling.”

She says she teaches ceramics on a therapeutic level, with the first few weeks of the course focused on massaging the clay and learning how the medium responds in different stages. Her students research pottery from ancient civilizations before creating vessels in ancient styles with surfaces that reflect their personal choices.

In addition to her work as an educator, Green is an artist. Through her own home-based studio, she crafts customized ceramic tiles and murals, as well as stoneware. She also volunteers with the Empty Bowls Project, coordinating the annual production of some 200 bowls, the sales of which benefit the North Texas Food Bank and Tarrant Area Food Bank.

The Journey

Donna Rowland, a student of Green, said, “She gives you a lot of history. It piques your interest. It inspires your passion and lights a fire underneath you. Mrs. Green opened a perspective I didn’t know.”

Fellow student Jessica Allen agrees. “She (Green) takes you on a journey of understanding the ceramic arts,” she said. “If you walk into a room and see a beautiful vase, you may appreciate its form, but if you understand its history, its journey, you have a deep appreciation for what is in front of you. Mrs. Green takes each student on this journey and inspires them to continue the story of ceramic art in their own words.”

Green took a journey of her own. During graduate school in 1991, she learned about Reverend John McKamie Wilson, a Presbyterian minister and slave owner, and his slave potters in Texas; information about them, however, was hard to find. Yet, Green never lost her desire to discover more, particularly as she learned there had been a trail of slave potters stretching from North Carolina to Texas. In the summer of 2011, she took a field trip with her husband to Edgefield, South Carolina, in search of anything she could find about celebrated slave potter, Dave Drake (also known as “Dave the Potter” and “Dave the Slave”).

While attending the 2014 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference, she heard a presentation about Drake. “My takeaway from this experience was I wanted the same recognition for the Wilson Potters,” said Green. Once again, she searched for information. This time, the images of two African American men appeared in her search, along with a link to the Wilson Pottery Foundation.

Green began collecting information about Wilson Pottery and visited the Wilson Pottery Museum in Seguin, Texas in 2015. During the spring of 2016, she created replica pottery pieces for an exhibition at the TCC South Student Center. In October 2017, Green attended the annual Wilson Pottery Show, where she met Wilson family members and supporters. The experience deepened Green’s commitment to the Wilson legacy.

Within weeks, Green submitted her application for Faculty Development Leave so she could work with the Wilson Pottery Foundation and create replicas of their work.

The History

The images of the two African American men Green found in 2014 were of Hiram and James, two of the 20 slaves who traveled with John M. Wilson and family to Seguin from Missouri during the winter of 1856-1857. Green’s research indicates the anti-slavery sentiment in Missouri probably threatened Wilson’s way of life, prompting his move to Texas.

Wilson took over as minister at the Presbyterian Church in Seguin and became headmaster of Guadalupe College, as well as a contributor to the agricultural production in the area. He hoped to make a profit while helping those in the area preserve food for a longer period of time. Stoneware was the primary method of preservation in the South at the time, but because no stoneware was being produced in the area, the cost of pottery was high.

“From the high price of stoneware, and the demand for it, I felt that the pottery business would be profitable and a source of convenience and pecuniary advantage to the country,” Wilson said in an article in The Texas Almanac of 1870.

In 1857, Wilson—along with his son and a man believed to be his son-in-law—secured a 25-year lease of 315 acres in Guadalupe County to start a pottery business. The lease cost one dollar. The property provided the natural materials needed to build a manufactory and shelter for workers and stock, as well as a supply of water, clay and stone required to produce pottery.

According to Michael K. Brown in his book, The Wilson Potters: An African-American Enterprise in 19th-Century Texas, “During the 19th century, slaves were rarely trained to make stoneware. Instead, in the lower South, pottery making was an activity largely confined to the craftsman’s family, as these regional establishments tended to be small-scale operations.”

An exception to this rule was the Edgefield District where slave potter Drake worked. By 1820, local industry grew at such a pace that slave labor was introduced.

The Wilson Potters worked at three sites. The first, Guadalupe Pottery, opened in 1857 and operated similar potteries in the Edgefield District of South Carolina.

While Wilson did not create pottery himself, Hiram and James were trained in the craft. Either they learned in Texas or were trained when they lived in North Carolina, prior to living in Missouri. It appears, though, they were trained by someone connected to the Edgefield District, according to Brown.

Following the Civil War, African Americans proved pivotal in providing essential goods and services during Reconstruction and afterward. Wilson’s slaves, including Hiram, James and Andrew, George and Wallace, were now emancipated and in keeping with common practice, they took Wilson’s last name as their own.

In 1869, John M. Wilson (who, at that time, had a partnership with Marion J. Durham) sold his half interest in Guadalupe Pottery to Durham. The Guadalupe Pottery split into two shops when Hiram, James, Andrew, George and Wallace broke off from the original pottery to form their own pottery company, H. Wilson & Co., which was the first African American-owned business in Texas. Durham ran the other shop, Durham & Chandler, along with John Chandler and Isaac Suttles.

“Hiram Wilson Pottery is an important object of study because it represents a local effort by Texas freedmen to start a business,” said Joey Brackner, director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture and host of the Alabama Public Television series, Journey Proud. “What makes it even more interesting is that they were open to other pottery techniques than those employed during their enslavement,” according to Brackner, considered by many to be an expert on the Wilson Potteries.

H. Wilson & Co. operated until shortly after Hiram’s death in 1884. Then, James Wilson joined Durham & Chandler, which ran until 1903.

The Craft

According to Michelle Verret Johnson, project manager for the William J. Hill Texas Artisans & Artists Archive through the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it is significant that “the pottery was ultimately produced at two sites by Hiram Wilson and at all three sites by James Wilson. Both men acquired and mastered their skills as slaves and went on to open the first enterprise in Texas owned and operated by former slaves.”

Johnson described the pottery as “strikingly handsome, featuring simple yet elegant utilitarian forms.” Some Wilson Pottery used salt glazing, producing earth tones ranging from silvery grays and blues to deep greens and browns. “Wilson Pottery is some of the most valuable and collectible today, not only because it is beautiful and well made, but also because of this legacy,” Johnson said.

Wilson Pottery initially used alkaline (ash) glaze, characteristic of pottery produced in the Edgefield District in South Carolina. Brown, also curator of the Bayou Bend Collection with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, said, “The alkaline glaze assumed a range of colors from straw yellow, to celadon green, to reddish brown or dark brown. A number of factors could determine the color, such as the composition of the clay, the vessel’s placement in the kiln or its proximity to the heat.”

Wilson & Co. potters created pieces of various form including bowls, jars, jugs and churns, but it was the innovative elements that distinguished them. They fashioned handles in a horseshoe shape, unlike the typical crescent ones. Churns were created in a unique baluster-shape with rims to support lids. According to Green, the pottery also was signed, which was unusual for that period.

The H. Wilson & Co. Pottery Project

According to Green, the scope of the H. Wilson & Co. Pottery Project is to create artwork to help promote the H. Wilson & Co. legacy. She chose to do this through contemporary appropriation, or the reinterpretation of older works of art by reintroducing the work in a current context. “The process of contemporary appropriation encourages critical thinking on a creative level,” said Green. “It teaches students how to research ancient styles, reinterpret the form and produce works of art based on their personal experiences.” Green is creating a variety of jugs and vessels inspired by Wilson storage containers. To date, she has created about 20 jugs, ranging from one to six pounds each. The next set will range from six to 12 pounds each.

Green currently serves on Wilson Pottery Foundation’s Board of Directors. According to Paula King-Harper, board secretary, Green’s “dedication to the ceramics craft and her hunger for Wilson Pottery is inspiring.” She says Green’s redesign of H. Wilson & Co. pots “are sure to generate family and collector excitement.”

“It’s rare to have the time to devote and the access to resources to focus on a single creator, except in the event of an exhibit or other special programming,” said Johnson, who met Green at the Wilson Pottery Show in October 2018 and has been corresponding with her weekly ever since.

Johnson credits Green’s research with better interpretation of the Wilson Pottery pieces in their archives. “Earline’s work can generate a renewed interest in Wilson Pottery and Texas stoneware in general, which may prompt others to visit our museum and view the pieces with a greater appreciation for the circumstances of their creation.” Currently, the Hill Archive has more than 100 pieces of Wilson Pottery, 20 of which were recently added thanks to their partnership with the Wilson Pottery Foundation.

The Legacy

Green proudly holding a piece of her potteryWith this project, Green wants to focus on the potters’ legacy. “I feel the legacy deserves to be protected.

There’s nothing more important to me than sharing their legacy as African-American potters,” she said. Because so little is known about H. Wilson Pottery outside the state of Texas, Green said she plans to introduce the legacy to a population beyond its current regional status through publications, exhibitions, short YouTube demonstration videos and a documentation section on (her) website.

Early next year, Green plans to host an exhibit at TCC South of her pottery inspired by the Wilson potters. Following the exhibit, she would like to continue making an unspecified number of pieces each year and donate them to art auctions to support the ceramic arts.

Additionally, Green has been invited to present her research on H. Wilson & Co. at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference.

Green plans to continue working with the Wilson Pottery Foundation to help preserve the H. Wilson Pottery legacy and move it forward to a national audience, which she believes ties in perfectly with TCC’s goal to serve the community and be its first choice for partnership.

She also sees the project as supporting the student experience through active learning, which involves students in the learning process, rather than being passive recipients of instruction.

With regard to the Wilson Pottery legacy, Green has, herself, become an active learner.

Michelle Verret Johnson sees the benefit of the legacy. “It transforms the stoneware into tangible evidence of the complex nature of the relationship between these enslaved men and their owner’s business dealings before and in the immediate aftermath of emancipation,” she said. “The African American Wilsons became master craftsmen as enslaved potters and after emancipation, used those skills to survive and ultimately thrive. That is so much more than we know about most of their contemporaries, which greatly benefits us today.”

Learn more about TCC’s continuing education pottery and ceramics classes.