According to an 1870 census, William Howard was born in Africa, but was enslaved and owned by the family of William McWillie at Kirkwood Plantation in Madison County, Mississippi. Howard remained at Kirkwood as a freed man after the Civil War, working as a field hand. The desk was handed down through a local African American family, along with the story of William Howard as its maker.
In addition to its fascinating history, this object presents a curious contrast between its high-style, neoclassical form and the use of rough, "make-do" materials such as cotton and tobacco shipping crates in its construction. More than 70 hand-carved objects, including weapons, tools, eating utensils, vessels, and trade symbols embellish the desk's surface; however, what these objects are meant to convey remains a mystery. They may represent the important contributions of African American labor in manufacturing and the skilled crafts during a time of profound economic hardship and social change in the South. The desk certainly showcases the ingenuity and technical skill Howard must have possessed to create this masterpiece of American folk art.