African-Americans and Potteries in the Early 19th-Century New York Metropolitan Area

Mark Shapiro, Studio Potter and Proprietor of Stonepool Pottery, Worthington, Massachusetts
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African-Americans and Potteries in the Early 19th-Century New York Metropolitan Area

Time & Location

Dec 14, 2020, 2:00 PM EST
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About the Event

During his recent Smithsonian Artist Residency, Mark Shapiro studied the National Museum of American History's celebrated Remensnyder Collection, which includes some of the finest examples of early American salt-glazed stoneware.  Mark will speak about two stories behind these pots: that of the New York City African American master potter Thomas Commeraw, and the 1818 slave-trading scandal that enveloped New Jersey's Morgan and Van Wickle pottery families.

Thomas Commeraw was a major early New York City stoneware potter, but our understanding of him changed when Crocker Farm's Brandt Zipp discovered he was listed as "a black" in the 1800 U.S. census.  Further research revealed him to be a community leader, member of the First African Church, voting rights activist, and supplier of jars to New York's free black oystermen.  But why would such an accomplished master craftsman emigrate to Sierra Leone in 1820, leaving his country of birth and city of business?  The course of his career illuminates the deteriorating status of African American freemen (and many small master craftsmen) during the first decades of the 19th century during the economic expansion and the boom-and-bust cycles of the new Republic's early capitalism.

Just two years before Commeraw's departure, and across from the harbor from which he embarked, two prominent New Jersey men at the heart of the early stoneware industry became embroiled in a slave-trading scandal.  In the spring of 1818, Charles Morgan conspired with his brother-in-law, Judge Jacob Van Wickle, to delude, kidnap, and then falsify documents for several cargoes of enslaved New Jerseyans bound for New Orleans.  Although the two were indicted by a grand jury, neither man nor their many collaborators were punished.  Setting the great accomplishments and travails of Thomas Commeraw against the historical realities evinced in this scandal attests to the narrowing horizons for free and enslaved blacks in the early Republic and the hardening of the structurs of racism that plague us still.


Mark Shapiro is a potter in Western Massachusetts who has sought to bridge the gap between comtemporary studio potters and historical researchers, curators, and collectors.

With an undergraduate degree in anthropology, and after six years working as a sculptor in New York in the early 1980s, he moved to Worthington, Massachusetts and founded the Stonepool Pottery on a property that had been on the route of the Underground Railroad.

Shapiro is a frequent workshop leader, lecturer, curator, panelist, and writer, and is a mentor to more than half a dozen apprentices who have trained at his Stonepool Pottery.  His work is in many public collections, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Newark Museum of Art, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, and the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  His work was featured in the World Ceramics Biennial in Icheon, Korea.  His interviews of Karen Karnes, Michael Simon, Paulus Berensohn, and Sergei Isupov are in the Smithsonian Archive of American Art, and he edited A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes (UNC Press 2010).  Shapiro is on the advisory board of Ceramics Monthly and is a contributing editor to Studio Potter magazine.

A founding member of POW! (Pots on Wheels!), he also heads the Apprenticelines Project, which seeks to promote and expand apprenticeship.  In 2018-19 he was a Smithsonian Artist Residency Fellow studying the Remensnyder Collection at the National Museum of American History.

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