DURHAM, NC The Thomas Day Education Project through its sponsor the Apprend Foundation, Inc. received word late summer that it had received its first grant for an NEH summer institute. The two-week summer institute will support 30 elementary, middle, and secondary humanities teachers. They will be engaged in an intensive study of antebellum American history and culture as viewed through the lives and works of free and enslaved black artisans, entrepreneurs, and artists.
The expansion of the popular five-day Crafting Freedom workshop – which has to date been offered seven times to over 400 teachers nationwide – to a fourteen day seminar will allow needed time for: reflection and discussion; study of new scholarship on the lives of other artisans, entrepreneurs and artists; viewing and exploring the instructional uses of recently produced instructional films, media and on-line resources on slavery and freedom and interacting with experienced teacher mentors highly experienced in teaching this material.
Thomas Day and Elizabeth Keckly provide rich and rare case histories of the black artisan experience in the 19th century. Although the level of success Day and Keckly achieved was exceptional, many of their life experiences were typical for the untold thousands of free and enslaved black artisans, entrepreneurs, and artists who, despite the racially based societal constraints placed on all people of color, used their unique talents and skills to “craft freedom” for themselves and others.
Thomas Day was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia in 1801 and moved as a young man to the town of Milton in Caswell County, North Carolina. Milton was a booming tobacco market center and there Day became one of the most prominent furniture makers in the antebellum South. By 1850 his shop in the former Union Tavern was the largest furniture-making establishment in the state. His striking furniture designs have survived for over 150 years and today are considered outstanding examples of 19th-century American vernacular furniture.
Elizabeth Keckly also was born in Dinwiddie County sixteen years after Thomas Day. However, she was born into slavery. As she grew into adulthood, she honed her skills in the needle arts to become a highly accomplished dressmaker and fashion designer. After thirty years of slavery, she was able to purchase her own and her only child’s freedom. Later Keckly moved to Washington, D.C., and became the sole proprietor of an exclusive dressmaking shop and the fashion designer and confidante of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. In 1868, she wrote a detailed memoir, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.
Recent research on other black artisans, entrepreneurs, and artists of the 19th century also will be a part of the Institute and will help illuminate three inter-related and overlapping institute themes: “crafting freedom through black business enterprise;” “the politics of crafting freedom;” and “crafting freedom through creative expression.”
According to workshop director, Laurel Sneed, “The Crafting Freedom Institute is critically important because the teaching of African-American history at the K-12 levels—while mandated by curriculum standards in all states—is still too often limited to superficial accounts of plantation slavery, acknowledgement of the Civil Rights Movement, and the listing of a few exemplary blacks during Black History Month. There has been a great deal of scholarly research in recent years on slavery and freedom, yet there are still significant gaps in knowledge and understanding of this history among K-12 teachers. The Institute will address many of these gaps.
The scholarship of the institute aims to add substantial depth to participants’ understanding of what many scholars see as the central paradox of American history—how the institution of race-based slavery co-existed with the expansion of political rights and economic opportunities for most Americans in the 19th century. This paradox began in colonial America, but it was never so visible as in the antebellum period when Keckly, Day, and many other black artisans, entrepreneurs, and artists were intently and independently “crafting freedom” for themselves, their loved ones, and, in a larger sense, for the black community as a whole.