of the first if not the very first African-American owned businesses in Texas
was in Capote, not far from Seguin
in Guadalpe County. The business was known as H. Wilson and Co. and was one of
three potteries s in operation around Capote from 1857 to 1903. |
Wilson Pottery was a slave–based business started in 1857 after John McKamey Wilson,
Jr. settled in Guadalupe County with his 11 children and 20 slaves. John M. Wilson
was the minister of the Seguin Presbyterian church and headmaster of the female
academy of Guadalupe College. He was also a keen promoter who wrote articles about
the composition of various clays in the area and their suitablity for pottery.
He might have built the first Wilson Pottery to show that he knew what he was
talking about, but he probably did it to make money because utilitarian stoneware
was much in demand on the frontier.
None of this is to suggest that John
Wilson was a potter. Instead, he hired professional potters to teach the craft
to his slaves – Hiram, James, George and Andrew Wilson. The every day products
they turned out – chamber pots, churns, bowls, pitchers, storage jars and the
like – were durable and functional, just like the people who bought them.
of the stoneware from the first Wilson Pottery is in the celebrated Edgewood style
of South Carolina, which is alkaline glazed. Alkaline glazing was used a thousand
years ago in China but wasn’t developed in America until the 1880s by Abner Landrum
in South Carolina. The glazes that Landrum and other Edgefield potters used was
composed of lime or wood ash, or both, and fired to a temperature of more than
2,250 degrees Fahrenheit. Other pottery was either lead based and poisonous or
salt-glazed and expensive. Edgefield pottery was durable, non-toxic and inexpensive.
When the Civil War was over and his slaves were freed, John Wilson gave Hiram
and James Wilson some money, which they used to start their own pottery. He also
sold another pottery site to a trio of other potters in 1869. The most historically
significant of the three sites was the second one, which Hiram ran. Aside from
being an African-American owned business at a time when such a thing was unheard
of, the stoneware was distinguished by the H. Wilson and Co. etching; most utilitarian
stoneware of the day was not signed.
Stoneware from the second and third
sites was salt glazed, which gives the finished product a shiny and pitted finish,
often referred to as “orange peel.” Everything was shaped by hand on a potter’s
wheel and the interior was coated with dark brown slip clay. After air drying,
the stoneware was put into a kiln and heated. Salt was added by simply throwing
it into the kiln when it was at its hottest. The vessel shape of the H. Wilson
stoneware harks back to the first Wilson pottery but the horseshoe-shaped handles
and rims to support the lids were new. After all, Hiram and other were now free
to add whatever artisitic embelishes they desire.
Of course, in those
agrarian times nothing and nobody was expected to just sit around and look pretty.
Not even stoneware. The Wilson stoneware was put to use mostly in the preparation,
storage and serving of food, though the potters also produced a few flower pots,
churns, and even some marbles.
The black Wilsons of Capote formed a Freedman’s
Colony after the Civil War as violence and the threat of violence, particularly
against African-Americans, escalated. The Wilsons were said to be the victims
of at least two attacks. Hiram started a Baptist church there and a school, essentially
filling the same role in his community that John M. Wilson had served when he
first settled near Capote.
The H. Wilson Company lasted until about 1884,
when Hiram died. James Wilson and others from Hiram’s pottery went to work for
Durham at the third site, which continued until 1903 when Salt Creek flooded and
destroyed the operation.
Since then, examples of Wilson stoneware have
been exhibited at the Witte Museum in San
Antonio, the Institute of Texas Cultures in San
Antonio, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
The Wilson Pottery Foundation, with its own museum, is dedicated to preserving
the memory and works of Hiram and the other Wilsons who, in bondage and as free
men, created durable and practical stoneware that today is worth more than what
any of the Wilson potters made in a lifetime.
August 4, 2012 Column
from Central Texas"
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