To access the updated version (May 2013) of The Hidden History of Thomas Day by Laurel C. Sneed and Patricia Dane Rogers, originally published in June 2009, please click here.
The following is an abbreviated biography of Thomas Day.
Thomas Day (1801-1861), a free African-American cabinetmaker (fine furniture maker) and businessman, lived and worked in Caswell County, North Carolina from the early 1820’s until he disappeared from the records in 1861. By 1850, he had the largest furniture business in the state. A great deal of his furniture has survived and is cherished today in private homes and museums primarily in North Carolina and Virginia. Day’s life opens a window into a world most Americans know little about: 19th-century African-American history, and especially the experience of the small percentage of African Americans who were not enslaved, who were known as “free people of color” or “free blacks.”
Day was born at the beginning of the 19th century in Dinwiddie County near Petersburg in southern Virginia to free African-American parents whose respective families had been free since the early 1700s. Day and his brother, John, were educated privately by Quaker tutors. Both followed in their father’s cabinetry craft; however, their paths diverged when they were in their early 20s. In 1830 John Day immigrated to Liberia, a controversial colony established on the west coast of Africa for recently freed slaves and other free African Americans. There John Day became a Baptist minister, superintendent of the Southern Baptist missions, a prominent statesman and signer of the Liberian Declaration of Independence. He is remembered in Liberian history as a leading “architect” and founding father of that nation.
Thomas Day moved to Milton, North Carolina on the Virginia border near Danville, VA and became one of the South’s most celebrated furniture makers. At the time he was also one of most prominent black businessmen in the country. His skills were sought by many plantation owners whose homes he embellished with stylish mantle pieces, stair railings, and newell posts, in addition to providing them with fashionable furniture that reflected the latest urban styles and were often distinguished by Day’s unique touch.
Day maneuvered through the complex legal sanctions that confronted free blacks at the time, sometimes with the assistance of wealthy and influential white patrons. For example, a law had been passed in 1827 that prohibited free blacks from migrating into the state. He was affected by the law in 1830 when he married a free black Virginian, Aquilla Wilson Day. Sixty-one white citizens of Milton presented a petition to the state legislature asking that an exception be made to the 1827 law so that Aquilla could move across the state line to Milton and live with her husband. The exception was made in late December 1830 and Aquilla and Thomas were able to begin their life together as man and wife in North Carolina.
In 1835 Day attended the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Colour in Philadelphia. There he associated with some of the most successful and influential African American leaders in the nation, many of whom were or would soon become leaders in the struggle to end slavery. Most historians believe that Day would not have been present at such a meeting were he not sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, an argument that appears to be at odds with the fact that Day was a slave owner himself. However, many historians point out that free black slaveowning was sometimes a “protective cover” Southern free blacks deployed to show solidarity with the racial status quo of white supremacy. In other words, by owning slaves Day outwardly demonstrated his loyalty to the values of white supremacy, but there’s evidence he did not fully share those values. Other actions he took indicate he had very different values regarding the institution of slavery and desired to inculcate his children with them. For example, he sent his three children to an abolitionist-sympathizing school, Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts and was on very friendly terms with its radical abolitionist leaders. Research suggests that he may have met the leaders of Wesleyan at a major meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City in 1840, where a person by his name was listed in the attendance roster. In sum, increasingly evidence supports the theory that Day, while seeming to share the values of the social and cultural milieu within which he lived in North Carolina, was likely a “closet abolitionist.”
By 1850, Day’s shop was the largest in the state. Because he was one of the earliest furniture makers to use steam-powered tools and mass production techniques in North Carolina, he is considered a founding father of the modern Southern furniture industry.
By the end of his life, Thomas Day began to fall victim to a major economic recession and the ever-tightening racial order. His business was in receivership by the time of his death on the eve of the Civil War. His son, Thomas Jr., received a loan from business associates of his father’s and was able to continue to operate the business and to pay off its debts in a few years. By 1865, Day’s widow, Aquilla, his daughter, Mary Ann and Thomas Jr. were living in Wilmington, North Carolina. There they were prominent members of the activist free black community described in a contemporary news article as being fully supportive of the Union cause. In Wilmington, Mary Ann Day helped establish a school for formerly enslaved black children and used her own funds to purchase supplies. The school was started in 1865 before the fall of the Confederacy.
Thomas Day is at once anomalous and representative of the antebellum free black experience. The fact that such an extraordinary figure in business and in American decorative arts could have lain in obscurity for as long as he did, makes him a symbol of the many African Americans who anonymously contributed to American history and culture. In the words of historian Ira Berlin, Day and many other antebellum African Americans ” refused to accept the hand that was being dealt to them.” Fortunately, like Thomas Day, many of these unsung heroes are now being brought out of the shadows.