In 1787 ceramics entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood began to manufacture jasperware medallions to be distributed for free to those campaigning for the end to British involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They bore the motif of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade: a chained Black man kneeling under the phrase ‘Am I Not a Man and A Brother?’ Their design was reproduced and repurposed by abolitionists in Britain and America well into the nineteenth century, and was still relevant in the Civil Rights movement when the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike turned its question into a powerful statement: ‘I Am A Man’. Looking at the medallion today the imagery of the kneeling Black man in chains and his question is distressing. The object was designed to gain sympathy for the cause, but there is no getting away from the fact that the imagery of an enslaved Black man begging for his freedom from an imagined white audience is rooted in racialised power dynamics that exploit Black pain and confirm white power. It was this tension between the medallion’s radical history, and its problematic implications 200 years on, that sparked our research into this complex object.
As the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Public Engagement Fellow, I have been working with anti-racism educator Grace Barrett, who founded IAMALLY to teach teachers about racism and the V&A Wedgwood Collection in Stoke-on-Trent, to build a new community around Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion. Together we are researching the medallion’s historic radical power and re-making the medallion into an empowering object for the 21st century.
Although Wedgwood was most often remembered as an abolitionist, he was complicit in the slave trade as he produced covetable, luxury ceramics from which British buyers consumed colonial products such as slave-grown sugar, some of which were decorated with images of Africans. He was also instrumental in linking the Staffordshire Potteries to Liverpool, the centre of the British slave trade, with the Trent and Mersey Canal.
Despite his entrepreneurial concerns, Wedgwood was a religious dissenter who was part of a group of similarly minded scientists, philosophers and industrialists who were campaigning to abolish slavery and were experimenting with new ways to run flourishing global businesses ethically. The archives of the Wedgwood Factory contain Wedgwood’s correspondence with leading abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano, to whom he also offered financial support and protection from pro-slavery defenders. Their methods of campaigning included civil disobedience, boycotts (most famously of sugar) and the presentation of evidence gathered about the practices of British slavers in publications, addresses to parliament and in public lecture tours. Wedgwood’s medallion, a forerunner of the protest badge, was another tool to create solidarity and communicate their message. The medallions became something of a fashion accessory, framed or mounted into brooches and buckles. As abolitionist Thomas Clarkson commented, ‘some had them inlaid in gold on the lids of their snuffboxes. Of the ladies, several wore them as bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. A fashion … was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.’
Reinvestigating Wedgwood’s medallion was at the centre of our project in Stoke-on-Trent. We ran our first workshops with Art and Design students from Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College during the Euro 2020 Football Championship, where ‘taking the knee’ to protest against racial inequality and police brutality was all over the news. This gesture of allyship has its history in America’s Civil Rights movement and resonates powerfully with Wedgwood’s medallion itself. This historical object and its parallels today started our discussions with the young people we were working with as they began to explore a history of anti-racism local to them and think about what actions they wanted to take in the future.
We devised a series of workshops which we hoped would convey the spirit of Wedgwood’s medallion – to inspire radical change to tackle systemic racism – but also to create a space to challenge this historic artefact, to witness it in its full complexity. Students learned about histories of racism in Britain – which for many of them was the first time this had been discussed in a classroom – as well as engaging with histories of Black joy and excellence, focused on art, design and technological innovation. As part of this they met with SABLE and discussed what makes effective protest and allyship. They also worked with clay, a material none of these ‘children of the Potteries’ had touched before. They learned medallion making techniques from workers in the Wedgwood Factory and eventually created their own anti-racist medallions using historic techniques of modelling and mould-making. One key inspiration for the students was work by Black artists, such as The BLK Arts Group, contemporary ceramic artists such as Theaster Gates and Phoebe Collings-James, as well as the iconic designs Emory Douglas produced for The Black Panther magazine. Reflecting on their new medallions, one participant summarised: ‘I think at the time, the anti-slavery medallion informed white people and almost had a shock value that made them want to advocate for change. However, I feel that in the modern day this image can be upsetting and our modern designs want to empower people’.
The sixth-formers co-curated a display of their medallions and historic artefacts for the V&A Wedgwood Collection which they titled ‘I Am a Man and a Brother’. By inverting the medallion’s question, they hoped to guide audiences to critique the problematic power dynamics represented on the historic medallion while also revealing how this reframing unlocked its radical potential to inspire action today. Their message was then carried throughout the V&A Wedgwood Collection by an object trail and a timeline running along the floor up until 2015, marking the final repayment of the debt incurred by the British government for reparations to slave owners.
This is an ongoing project, and we are now working with a panel of young people, academics, makers and activists to work on the permanent re-display of Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion which will show how it was, and is, a powerful object for radical change. In the late eighteenth century Wedgwood’s medallion rallied people to the cause of abolition. Today it has become a focal point for a museum, a ceramics factory – and a broader community – to build an anti-racist movement inspired by their local history.
The permanent redisplay of the anti-slavery medallion will be on display from May 2022 at V&A Wedgwood Collection, Wedgwood Drive, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent ST12 9ER This project was made possible through the generous support of Art Fund, Fiskars and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.