The Chronicle: Historic enslaved potter Peter Oliver of Old Salem has an enduring legacy
Peter Oliver’s dramatic story of being a local Moravian slave who learned pottery and purchased his own freedom is still remembered today, by historical experts and his descendants.
Oliver’s skill and contributions to history were noted in “Peter Oliver: Life of a Black Moravian Craftsman” by historian Jon Sensbach.
“Moravian pottery is today regarded as among the best in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, a legacy in which Peter Oliver played a substantial part,” wrote Sensbach, a University of Florida history professor.
Many Forsyth County natives can trace their lineage to Oliver, including basketball star Chris Paul.
One of Oliver’s descendants is Raymond Oliver, a retired local dentist. He said a decade ago he was contacted by Mel White, a historian with Old Salem, who had traced Peter Oliver’s lineage to his modern descendants. Meetings were held, and 50 descendants attended and were given genealogical information about their connection to Peter Oliver. Reunions of descendants are still regularly held.
Raymond Oliver said he didn’t waste any time producing a play in 2005 on his noted ancestor, “The Peter Oliver Story,” which drew a full house.
“If he could accomplish all he did under the time and circumstances that he found himself, we should be encouraged to do more, since we have so many opportunities available to us now,” he said.
Peter Oliver is also remembered at Old Salem Museums & Gardens, which features the restored historic town of Salem, where he spent many years of his life. In 2010, Old Salem held a service for the 200th anniversary of his death. He’s featured during the African American Heritage Tour at Old Salem and is even featured in the tour’s video “Between Two Masters.”
Cheryl Harry, Old Salem’s director of African-American programing, said that Peter Oliver was an example of the many educated and skilled artisans who were slaves. She said he was well regarded in the church, too.
“He was a beloved member of the Moravian community,” she said.
Peter Oliver was born on May 10, 1766, in Virginia. During his early years he was simply known as “Oliver.” He came to Wachovia as an enslaved adolescent. In July 1785, the Single Brother House in Salem, where unmarried Moravian men stayed, took over his lease. He worked in the house’s kitchen, garden and craft shop. The house purchased him in 1786 and he was baptized and given the Christian name “Peter.”