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Thomas Day seeing renewed interest

September 1, 2010

Furniture maker and craftsman Thomas Day, nominated to the American Furniture Hall of Fame this year, certainly had a complex 19th century social structure to navigate.

I've been reading about him in a book published this year called "Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color."

Day also will be the subject of a presentation by Jo Ramsey Leimenstoll and Patricia Phillips Marshall in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. at 5ive and 40rty, 541 N. Trade St. during the Bookmarks Book Festival. (Full disclosure - my wife, Ginger, is director of the festival, and I picked up the book through her.)

Day was nothing if not driven. He didn't seem to pay much attention to the racial hierarchy and outright bigotry of the day that was designed to keep him a second class citizen, and keep him from realizing what the Bill of Rights promised all Americans.

He defies our conventional knowledge of how someone like him might fit into that society.

Day was born in 1801 with a light skinned complexion to a free black mother and father. He was referred to as a "free person of color" - or someone who had an African ancestor within four generations.

Day's family moved to North Carolina in the early 1800s because its laws were less restrictive toward his mixed-race ancestry than Virginia. They settled in Milton, a city founded 1796 along the Virginia border in Caswell County.

Thomas Day was respected in his community, at least from what we can gather of his earlier years. As he neared his late 20s, he was a successful furniture and cabinet maker with a shop and several employees. He also was a property owner, and made money as a planter.

Among other notable commissions, he made furniture for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He mechanized his shop with a steam engine and belt-driven woodworking machines.

He petitioned the state of North Carolina in 1830 to allow his wife, a Virginian, to move to his home in this state. He had to ask because of an 1826 North Carolina law that banned the migration of free people of color into the state. With the support of N.C. Attorney General Romulus Mitchell Saunders, Caswell County political officials and 61 members of the growing community of Milton, his petition was granted.

At a time when black churches were rare in North Carolina and whites required free and enslaved blacks to sit in balconies and pews established for their race, Day was asked to build pews for his church.

He did so on one condition - that his family be allowed to sit in the pews among white congregants. He was granted this request and later church rolls bear no mention of his race.

There are many reasons he was allowed mobility in such a race-centric society. For one thing, he was among the 27% of North Carolinians who owned slaves - 14 in 1850.

There are complexities behind this ownership that are difficult for us to understand. However, Day's status as a slave owner and planter went a long way toward convincing the planter community that he shared its values. He was thus not lumped in with the local black population.

By 1850, he operated the largest cabinet shop in the state. But racism was becoming even more intensified. His business struggled through the Panic of 1857. He died four years later in 1861, the year the Civil War began.

While history may prize Day for his status as a historic anomaly, it's not what brought him to the game. The man had an eye for detail and design, for texture, veneer, wood turning and beauty. He was an artist and creative genius.

Once commissioned for plantation homes, his designs are now highly prized antiques. His furniture and architectural details reflect rococo, Gothic and Greek revival styling.

On a lighter note, a Day newspaper advertisement from 1825 reads:

"He has on hand a small stock of Mahogany Furniture, made of the best St. Domingo mahogany, in the newest fashion, and executed in the most faithful manner; - and also some Walnut and Stained Furniture, and high and low post Bedsteads, turned according to the latest patterns: all which he will sell at reduced prices and on the most accommodating terms."

Reduced prices and most accommodating terms? He obviously knew the furniture business.