Thomas Day | Caswell County, North Carolina | 1801-61
Few craftsmen of their time were as prolific as Thomas Day who led a successful, yet complicated life in the antebellum South. Born in 1801 in Virginia, Day was a master carpenter and free man of color who lived in Milton, North Carolina where he became the most successful cabinetmaker in the state, white or black. His skill and success as a craftsman and business owner are made more interesting when you consider that this was during an era when most blacks were enslaved, and free blacks were restricted in their movements and activities. His work represented the best of the 19th century and many examples survive to this day in private homes and museums.
Thomas Day: Born Free
Born in Virginia, Thomas’ parents were both free, landowning African Americans. He and his brother John learned cabinetmaking from their father and in 1820, John relocated to Milton, NC on the Dan River. Thomas followed his older brother in 1821 and by 1823 the brothers had established a cabinet shop. In 1825, John returned to Virginia, leaving the business to his brother Thomas, for which he would become famous. John, who had studied theology during his time in Milton, later went on to Liberia, a controversial colony established on the west coast of Africa for recently freed slaves and other free African Americans where he became a minister and prominent leader in the Liberian government.
The Work Produced By Thomas Day
As Thomas honed his craft and built the business, word of his craftsmanship spread throughout the region, and for good reason. A prolific amount of products came out of his shop ranging from furniture- including sofas, dressers, bookcases, tables, chairs, bureaus, and wardrobes. But Day and the craftsmen of his shop also created many examples of architectural ornamentation like fireplace mantels, scrollwork, staircases, and moldings. His work would come to adorn the finest homes of the region and served as status symbols amongst the wealthy white planters who hired him to create one-of-a-kind pieces.
Luckily today, many examples of his work still exist in private homes and museum collections. Without passionate collectors, preservationists, and museum donors, we might not be able to fully appreciate the quality of work that was produced by this shop in rural North Carolina during the antebellum period. Below, I have included a small selection of the pieces I found shared online to try and showcase a bit of his work. While there is great variety in the creations he was hired to make, there is an obvious thread in his motifs and styling that connect them. Historians that specialize in this subject point out the elements that are indicative of his work: spiraling shapes, undulating forms, and fluid lines.
The work that came from Thomas Day’s workshop in Milton wasn’t limited to furnishings only. He was also commissioned by certain clients to complete fanciful architectural pieces for the large mansions that were being built during this boom era.
A Unique Character For His Time
In January 1830, Thomas married Aquilla Wilson, a free woman of color from Virginia. They wed in Halifax, Virginia, but when he tried to return home to Milton, NC, they were barred due to an act of the Legislature from 1827 written to “prevent free persons of colour from migrating to the state.” By this time, Thomas had already made a name for himself amongst the wealthy white people of the town and had curried the favor of some important citizens who were able to vouch for his character in hopes he could bring Aquilla to North Carolina. In a letter to the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina dated November 1830, 62 white residents of Milton signed a petition on behalf of Day to bring his new wife to Milton. In their defense of his character, they describe him as a “cabinet maker by trade, a first-rate workman, a remarkably sober, steady, and industrious man…”
In an attempt to assuage any concern about his involvement in a perceived uprising, R.M. Saunders (North Carolina Attorney General and former state legislator and U.S. Congressman) explained “I have known Thomas Day for several years…he is an excellent mechanic, industrious, honest, and sober in his habits and in the event of any disturbance amongst the Blacks, I should rely with confidence upon a disclosure from him as he is the owner of Slaves as well as real estate.”
Late in 1830, a special act was passed to allow his wife to enter the state and Thomas returned to his home in Milton, NC with his new wife. Thomas and Aquilla Day had three children- two of whom, Mary Ann and Devereaux, were educated in a Massachusetts boarding school run by abolitionists. Later, their daughter, Mary Ann, would attend school with the Moravians in Salem, NC where she studied piano.
Besides his successful cabinet shop, Day was a stockholder in the Bank of Milton and also had a lucrative side business farming and owned land in town and beyond. He defied many norms of the antebellum period and enjoyed a different level of social status amongst the people of Milton than would the majority of African Americans of the region who were enslaved.
As a result of his skill and success, his social standing was also much different than other freedmen. During this time, Sunday church services would’ve been divided with white and black congregants sitting in different pews. But when Thomas attended Milton Presbyterian Church, he was welcomed to sit with the white church members in the pews he had carved himself in 1840. And while it can’t be confirmed, the legend around Milton was that he had exchanged the finely crafted pews for being allowed to sit downstairs with the white members.
A Booming Business In Complex Times
As the economy of tobacco boomed and plantations of the region flourished based on the labor of enslaved people, planters from the Dan River amassed great new wealth that they were eager to showcase. They built grand new homes and hired Thomas to complete fine interior architectural elements. As demand for pieces from his shop continued, he adopted new technological improvements that increased production and contributed to the unique complexity of his designs.
In 1827, he bought a small property on Milton’s Main Street, and later, he purchased the former Union Tavern and turned it into a cabinet-making shop, and home. By the 1840s, his business was booming. He was known across the state and in 1845, received an order for 45 pieces of furniture for the governor’s mansion from Governor Reid. To keep up, Thomas opened a bigger workshop, employing both freedmen and enslaved craftsmen. The fact that Thomas was a free black man in the antebellum South, who benefitted from the labor of enslaved people, has led some to look for an explanation.
Some scholars believe that Day’s ownership of slaves was to a large extent a “cover” or “camouflage” for his anti-slavery activities. The best way for a free black person to demonstrate support and solidarity with the pro-slavery norms of the South was to own slaves themselves.
Another explanation that some have arrived at is more economically focused. According to this theory, Thomas would train white craftsmen in his shop and after they learned his process and techniques, they would open a competing shop. While they benefitted from enslaved labor in their shops, Thomas wasn’t able to keep up with their prices unless he did the same.
And while we can’t confirm either explanation, it helps us better understand the complex time and complicated position that Thomas Day held in a society that didn’t have a place for him.
When Boom Went Bust
By 1850, Day’s business operation had become one of the largest furniture and cabinetmaking businesses in North Carolina. In 1857, Thomas upgraded to a steam operation to increase productivity but had to take on large debt to upgrade the system. When a national panic took hold later that year, Day’s business would not recover. The court gave him until 1859 to settle his debts and by 1860, Day’s business was in receivership. In 1861, the court named his friend and business partner, Dabney Terry, as trustee for the property, which included his house and shop, tools, steam engines, rental properties, wagons, furniture inventory, teams, harnesses, and six enslaved people. Thomas passed away later that year. He was buried on his property outside of Milton.
And strangely enough, the man who left behind so many intricate and ornate creations was buried with no ornamentation, marked only by a pile of stones. Until more recent years when a more suitable monument was placed to memorialize him.
After his death, Thomas’ son was able to buy back the business, but the Civil War and Reconstruction years forced the operation to close completely in 1871. Aquilla moved to Wilmington, NC to be with her children.
See His Work
Day’s style is unique to his shop, characterized by spiraling shapes, undulating forms, and fluid lines. His unique motifs and complex craftsmanship created a distinctive interpretation that can be easily identified and attributed to his shop. Many examples of this work can still be found in homes throughout the region, as well as an impressive collection that is on display at the MESDA Gallery in Winston, Salem, NC.
Visit Thomas Day’s Home and Workshop
In 1975, the Union Tavern earned a designation as a National Historic Landmark, due in part to its association with Thomas Day but in 1989, a fire severely damaged the old Union Tavern where his shop was located. Preservation North Carolina stepped in to help save this landmark along with a grassroots organization in Milton. Now, you can visit his shop, home, and tavern which now serves as a museum.
**If you choose to purchase the Thomas Day book through one of the links on this page, I will receive a nominal percentage from Amazon as an affiliate. By purchasing through these links, you can add an incredible history book to your collection and also help me to keep this project afloat. Thank you!**