A wealthy free black man in the antebellum South? A rare thing indeed. But master craftsman and cabinetmaker Thomas Day was such a man, sought after by the richest tobacco farmers for his hand built classically inspired furniture. He would count two governors and the University of North Carolina among his clients.
Originally from Dinwiddie County, Virginia, Day had the great luck to be born, in 1801, into a family that had been free for generations. When laws became more restrictive for free blacks in Virginia, as they had been increasingly in the South, the Day family moved to Caswell County, North Carolina. Day apprenticed to his father, then struck out on his own, advertising in local papers in 1827: “Thomas Day, Cabinet Maker returns his thanks for the patronage he has received and wishes to inform his friends and the public that he has on hand, and intends keeping, a handsome supply of mahogany, walnut, and stained furniture, the most fashionable and common bedsteads.”
Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, which opened in the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on April 12, takes a close look at the career of Thomas Day and his surviving furniture and architectural woodwork, some of the best craftsmanship of any artisan of the nineteenth century.
Today called one of the fathers of the North Carolina furniture industry, Day’s success among the landed gentry and prominent whites helped him maintain a thriving business and protected him from some of the more draconian laws designed to hobble African Americans. At one time he asked for and received help from North Carolina’s attorney general and many other white citizens when laws forbidding free blacks to enter North Carolina stopped his bride Aquilla Wilson from traveling from Virginia to join him. Day’s popularity was fed by the fashion of the time among the gentry of building their homes in neoclassical style—Greek Revival being particularly popular. Day combined his own motifs, with fluid lines and spiraling forms that immediately identified his furniture and architectural elements from that of others. Woodwork in about 80 homes in rural North Carolina and Virginia today has been attributed to Day.
His story might have ended here, the tale of an African-American who beat the odds, if there wasn’t an aspect of Day’s life that is at once troubling and complicated: The master cabinetmaker owned slaves, at one time 14 of them according to an 1850 census. He also employed indentured servants
Scholars debate why he did what he did. Some say that, as was the case with other black slaveholders, he may have purchased other African-Americans to free them. “I think there’s a great misunderstanding about what it means for people to own slaves,” said Peter Wood, a history professor at Duke University in a 2010 interview for National Public Radio. “If you are an African-American opposed to slavery but engaged in business with wealthy white planters in North Carolina, the best ‘cover,’ if you will, for the workers that you have with you is to call them slaves.”
Others speculate that Day was just another Southern businessman, and slave labor is what helped keep businesses running in the South. While recognizing that it’s difficult to know what Day’s motives were because there is no written record, Carolyn Boone, Day’s great- great- great-granddaughter, strongly objects to the notion that he was a slaveholder like his rich white clients and insists that oral family history, and the fact that, if he chose to, he could have had hundreds of slaves, yet he only had a few, may points to a deeper purpose.
Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color includes a wide range of items produced in Day’s shop from 1830 to 1860. The exhibition showcases 39 pieces of furniture crafted by Day, or attributed to his workshop, as well as a Bible owned by Day, three period quilts from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, historic photographs and contemporary photographs of architectural interiors designed by Day. A majority of the loans are from the North Carolina Museum of History, which has the largest collection of furniture made by Thomas Day.
For more information, please visit the exhibit website at the Smithsonian American Art Museum