Christian Author: Nancy W. Boyer

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Small Business Restrictions brings BANKRUPTCY…in 1858

•Born 1801 Virginia
•Free Black Craftsman
•Maker of Fine Furniture
•Successful Businessman
•Lived Milton,NC 1823-1861
•Died c. 1861

Thomas Day, Master Cabinet Maker

It was before the Civil War. A well-educated man, member of the local Presbyterian Church, and highly recognized cabinet-maker was going bankrupt. His name was Thomas Day of North Carolina.
“Thomas Day is North Carolina’s most famous furniture craftsman and cabinetmaker. During his lifetime, his work was acclaimed from Georgia to Virginia, and he became one of the largest furniture manufacturers in North Carolina. In recognition of his talent, he was commissioned to furnish the interior woodwork in one of the original buildings of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His classically inspired furniture was built by hand and his wealthy clients included two North Carolina governors.

Examples of Thomas Day’s work

Born in 1801 in Dinwiddie County in southern Virginia,Thomas Day came from a fortunate family that had been free African-Americans for several generations. Thomas was educated by private tutors and apprenticed with his father John Day, Sr., who was a moderately successful cabinetmaker. The Day family moved to Warren County, North Carolina in 1817, because of increasing restrictions against free African-Americans in the early nineteenth century in Virginia. (His brother had moved to N.C to become a preacher and Thomas followed him from VA.)

Fortunately for the Days, they moved just prior to a law forbidding relocation. In 1825, at the age of 24, Thomas moved to Milton in Caswell County, where he established a cabinet making business. The business quickly grew, and in 1827, he advertised “a handsome supply of mahogany, walnut and stained furniture” in the Milton Gazette and Roanoke Advertiser.

Pews built by Thomas Day in the Presbyterian Church

In antebellum North Carolina, many state laws and cultural norms restricted the activities of free African-Americans. However, Thomas Day achieved success both socially and professionally. He was highly admired and respected in his community of Milton and contributed to its prosperity. Although he owned slaves himself, he challenged deeply entrenched racial and social injustices of the antebellum South.  (Many people do not know that freed black men of the South often owned slaves themselves.  This is a difficult thing to understand because they also fought against slavery.)

When he married a free African-American woman, Aquilla Wilson of Virginia, Day confronted an 1826 law that barred free African-Americans from migrating to North Carolina. With the support of North Carolina’s attorney general and more than 60 prominent whites in Milton who petitioned the General Assembly on his behalf, Day and his wife were granted an exemption. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Day were later accepted as members of the Milton Presbyterian Church. They worshiped with the white congregation in beautifully crafted pine, poplar, and walnut pews that Day had crafted.

By 1850, Thomas Day’s furniture business was the largest of its kind in North Carolina. As his business thrived, he employed white apprentices seeking to break down racial barriers. He expanded his business to coincide with the growth and changing tastes of antebellum society.

Day added his own stamp of creativity to a variety of styles including Federal, Gothic, Late Classical and Empire. His inventive decorative motifs and impeccable craftsmanship characterize his furniture, the quality of which eventually won him nationwide recognition.

Chairs by Thomas Day

As the Civil War loomed in the late 1850s, North Carolina enacted more restrictive laws against African-American business owners. Consequently, Day’s business faltered and went bankrupt before he died in 1860 or 1861.”( taken from North Carolina Freedom Monument Project.)

Restrictive Laws or suppressive burdens of many kinds, when it comes to the man or woman who wants to use the God-given talents in their small businesses, can only lead to a sadness and  failure.

 A lesson here is one to be learned, over a hundred years later, from a man who tried to do the right thing for social justice. I am impressed that he hired whites to be apprentices to learn  his amazing ability.  He was honored by high up authority for his creations.  His was one of hard-work and talent, only to die with heart-break because he could not survive the smothering  oppression of government and economic problems nationwide.  Does this say  much to us today? 

For video viewing, click Thomas Day Cabinetmaker in blue below.  It is a little slow in starting, but PBS will introduce it. Ignore advertisements !   Click on the small  arrow to play and enlarge screen.   Worth the wait.  Antique enthusiasts and wood workers will really enjoy this.

Watch Thomas Day, Cabinetmaker on PBS. See more from pbs.

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