By theirhands Slave-made furniture sheds light on history

The Corleys acquired this 1780s drop-front desk from a friend in Sumter County. The cypress and heart pine desk has the original 40 panes of hand-blown glass in its doors. The 6-by-4 inch panes are each secured with hand-wrought pins. The side paneling uses mortise and tendon construction, indicating it was built by a housewright.

To hear Charles Corley discuss the slave-made furniture he owns is to think that he knew the makers personally. The truth is, he’s become familiar with them through stories his family has handed down along with the furniture those enslaved artisans made.

It is from sitting at the knees of family members and descendants of slaves as a boy that he learned to appreciate the old furniture-making process.

“Abraham and Jack would select a tree, chop it with an ax they made, split it, cure and hand plane it and sometimes get creek bottom rocks to smooth the wood. They would use pine bark, red clay and clabbored milk to make a stain that looks like dark chocolate and use maple bark to make a red stain,” Corley says.

“The artisans’ minds that these fellows had were not common by any means. That’s what I want people to know.”

About half of the 60 slave-made pieces in Corley’s collection were produced by slaves such as Jack and Abraham, who were owned by Corley’s ancestors. He and wife Dawn, an antiques expert known as the Charleston Silver Lady, collected another 30 pieces from around the Lowcountry.

The excitement in Corley’s voice and expression on his face when he speaks indicate the awe he has for the talent it took to make the furniture.

Several times a year, he and Dawn bring pieces of the furniture from their Midlands homes, Corley Hall (built in 1819 in Lexington) and Lemmon Hill Plantation (built in 1790 in Winnsboro), to Charleston to give lectures.

The couple say that while they collect the pieces, made of ash, cypress, cherry, heart pine and walnut, they don’t want to be called collectors.

“I prefer to be called a keeper,” says Corley, who focuses on pre-1850s pieces in which the hinges, nails and everything else were handmade. “You don’t ever own it. You take care of it. Then it will be time for somebody else to take care of it.”

“Jack worked in the house,” Corley says. “He was very much an artist. He made furniture from 1785 to 1790 and 1820s and 1830s.” Pieces include a dining table, stepback cupboard, small ladies’ desk and a knife with a handle made from a deer antler in which he carved his likeness.

Abraham, a slave owned by Corley’s grandmother’s Sox ancestors, worked from the 1830s to 1840s and made two big stepback cupboards. One of the pieces was given to Corley by Abraham’s granddaughter, Viola Brooker, who died at 105 four years ago.

The African-American Corleys recently gathered in the midstate for a family reunion and visited Corley Hall.

Carolyn Corley-Ashford says she was honored to touch the centuries-old objects during the group’s visit. She described the experience as similar to reading a story from another time. She and Charles Corley say she is not known to be descended from those who made the furniture.

“I think it’s so good they have a plan for preserving the pieces and the history, for a family member to be the keeper,” says Corley-Ashford. “They won’t just be thrown into the trash someday. I hope they will never be sold but that someone will keep them and treasure them.”

SCETV and eMedia will visit Corley Hall and Lemmon Hill Plantation in October to film segments for the state Education Department’s Project Discovery, says Bette Jamison, eMedia coordinator.

They want to show students across South Carolina the high level of craftsmanship the slaves exhibited in making the pieces, says Jamison.

There are not that many examples of slave-made furniture around, says David Singleton, a public program assistant with the Historic Charleston Foundation who has seen the Corley collection.

“Many were stolen, broken, made into fire wood during the Civil War. I am not sure that some of the museum houses have pieces like that. I have not seen a lot of pieces or heard a lot of discussion about slave-made furniture.”

Those interested in learning more about the pieces can have a private tour of the Corley collection at no charge, says Dawn Corley. They need to make an appointment by contacting Charles Corley (info@lemmonHillplantation.com).

“They can bring a group, come as a family or as an individual. Typically, we just ask for a donation to continue preservation efforts and their (slave craftsmen’s) legacy.”

In addition, Lowcountry residents may want to contact the Slave Relic Museum in Walterboro (info@slaverelics.org), Dawn Corley says.

The Corleys also occasionally teach classes on the antiques at The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.