A Tale of Two African American-Made Plantation Desks

NEW YORK—William Howard literally put his life into his work. Nearly 150 years ago, he made two hand-crafted desks, secretary-style treasures with pictographic details representing the many tools and utensils he used everyday.

Howard, a craftsman and farm laborer, was a Mississippi slave. He worked at Kirkwood Plantation for William McWillie, who served as governor of the state from 1857 to 1859, and his wife Catherine. After he was a free man, Howard remained at Kirkwood and built both furniture pieces circa 1870.

The one-of-a-kind plantation desks are now sought after-antiques held by Northeast galleries. Howard created two sculptural objects with historic, anthropologic and aesthetic value.

The larger of the two is at Ricco/Maresca, a New York gallery that specializes in “the art of self-taught masters working outside the historical mainstream.” Frank Maresca said he has been aware of the desk for more than 20 years and finally acquired it three days before displaying it at The Metro Show over the weekend.

At the Winter Antiques Show, the smaller scale desk is at Jeffrey Tillou Antiques of Litchfield, Conn.

All photos © Arts Observer

At Ricco/Maresca, one of two known carved wood desks made by William Howard.

“Rare and Important African American Pictographic Plantation Desk,” circa 1870 (lime wood and found wood, measures 60.25 x 30 x 23.5 inches) at Jeffrey Tillou Antiques.

William Howard applied pictographic details to the surface of the desks. Detail of facade of desk at Jeffrey Tillou Antiques.

Detail of “Pictographic Secretary,” circa 1870 (yellow pine and found wood, measures 65 x 44.5 x 24 inches) at Ricco/Maresca.

Interior of desk at Ricco/Maresca.

Detail of desk at Ricco/Maresca.

Detail of desk at Ricco/Maresca.

There are 3 comments

  1. Denise Chaplin

    Just received my Family tree and learned Governor William McWillie is my Great, great, great grandfather through slavery.

  2. William H. Sutherland, Jr.

    I transported the small desk from Canton, Mississippi to New York City several years ago. It was entrusted for sale with an “expert” who advised the owner that its value was virtually distroyed by a coat of paint that her father put on the desk many years ago. She was aware of the price the first desk brought at sale thus she returned back o Mississippi very disappointed. She allowed the expert to sell her desk at a price reported to her of about 1/20th of the price quoted in Maine Antique Digest for the recent sale price for the small desk. CAVEAT, don’t believe the “experts”!!

    1. Edward Sanders

      Mr. Southerland – I am wondering whether your client has other William McWillie items. I have a family connection to the Kirkwood Plantation and would be interested in any other items for sale.

      Edward Sanders

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