Image: Thomas W. Commeraw, Jar, ca. 1800-1819. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Samuel V. Hoffman, 1927.84.
Based on Recently Discovered Evidence, Exhibition Shines a New Light on New York’s Free Black Community in the Early 1800s
On view January 27 – May 28, 2023
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 City’s free Black community. On view January 27 –May 28, 2023, the exhibition explores Commeraw’s 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 artisan’s 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 York’s 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 Historical’s vice president and museum director, who co-curated the exhibition. “While Commeraw’s 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 Baker’s Hill in the vicinity of today’s 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 city’s 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 Manhattan’s Corlears Hook. In addition to signaling pride in his work, Commeraw’s prominent branding helped him attract and retain customers.
In addition to revealing Commeraw’s 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 voter’s 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 Historical’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library that bears Commeraw’s 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 Commeraw’s 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 Commeraw’s 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 potter’s entrepreneurial energy and political engagement.
Additionally, Queens-based ceramic artist and activist Sana Musasama has created a new work that reflects on Commeraw’s 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 Historical’s grand lobby, the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Gallery, to introduce the exhibition and encourage visitors to contemplate how Commeraw’s story continues to resonate today.
Crafting Freedom is co-curated by New-York Historical’s 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. 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.
On April 10, 2023, historian Leslie Harris joins David M. Rubenstein in conversation to discuss the shadow of slavery and the history of African Americans in New York City from the early days of New Amsterdam to the Civil War era. Guided tours can be arranged throughout the exhibition’s run.
Major support for Crafting Freedom: The Life and Legacy of Free Black Potter Thomas W. Commeraw is provided by the Decorative Arts Trust and Emily and James Satloff. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About the New-York Historical Society
Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new annex housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.