This mid-19th-century mahogany veneer dressing bureau, one of Winterthur’s newest furniture acquisitions, is a visually striking object with an even more striking history. Although the dresser conforms to popular urban furniture designs of its era (with its distinctive carved bracket feet; whimsical, pierced looking glass frame; and the open pierced scrolls that flank the front), its maker and his career were highly unusual. The piece was made by the Milton, North Carolina, shop of Thomas Day (1801–1861).
Tracing this dresser back to Thomas Day tells us an important story about Day, his family, and his exceptional career in the context of the antebellum South. He was a free African-American cabinetmaker, who, at the height of his career in the 1850s, operated the most prosperous furniture business in North Carolina. He was one of very few free African-Americans who found success as a trained artisan, in a period when most free men worked as unskilled laborers or servants. In his workshop were both white and black and free and enslaved workers, and yet he was also a supporter of abolitionist activities. Remarkably, during his lifetime he also earned the patronage and respect of his white southern neighbors. He did this despite the overarching racial tensions of the age and the fear that some power-wielding white Americans felt regarding the growing ranks of free African-Americans in their communities.
Day was the product of several generations of mixed-race unions (where the children born inherited their freedom from their white mothers). These unions established the Day family as members of the South’s growing class of free people of color. Thomas’s father, John, was purportedly born to a white woman and her coach driver. John’s white grandfather sent him away to be raised by a white family, and they facilitated his training as a cabinetmaker. He passed down that skillset to his two sons, John Jr. and Thomas.
The choices made by John Jr. and Thomas exemplify some of the few options available to free men of color in the early 1800s. Although John Jr. did work for a time as a cabinetmaker, in 1821 he began training as a Baptist preacher, and in 1830, he embarked on a new mission. That year he moved his own young family to Africa, to the newly formed free black colony of Liberia. This controversial plan was the brainchild of the American Colonization Society, formed in 1816, founded on the credo that migration and colonization could be the solution to racial unrest in America.
In contrast, in the 1820s Thomas established himself permanently in the growing mercantile center of Milton, North Carolina, and actively cultivated his social and business ties with his white neighbors. He became a respected member of his community, admired for his work ethic and craftsmanship, and also purportedly light-skinned enough that he could be conceptualized as separate from the larger black community.
That respect ran deep enough that in 1830, Milton’s white community supported him in his legal battle to bring his free African-American bride, Virginia-born Aquilla Wilson, to live with him in North Carolina. An 1826 law banned free people of color from migrating into North Carolina, but a written petition of support signed by 61 white citizens of Milton and Caswell counties gained them an official exemption. Signed by many prominent white citizens, the petition argued that Thomas was a “cabinetmaker by trade, a first rate workman, steady and industrious man,” and above all else, “a highminded, good and valuable citizen.” Thomas Day continued to work in Milton, with his workshop in the Union Tavern building, which still stands on Milton’s main street, until just before his death in 1861.
Contrary to the fact that he himself owned slaves, new research has revealed his secret ties to northern abolitionists. In the spring of 1835, Thomas attended “the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Color in the United States” in Philadelphia, where he most likely met with abolitionists.
It would have been noteworthy that an affluent southern man attended such an event. But for Thomas Day, a free man of color whose position depended upon his careful negotiation of the color line, it was radical. Evidence does suggest that Thomas kept his potential abolitionist sentiments concealed from his southern neighbors, his circumstances forcing him to live a kind of double life. Nevertheless, he did maintain ties to northern abolitionist friends throughout his life and sent his children to be educated at Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, a school run by a Methodist cleric, whom contemporaries described as a “flaming abolitionist.” Thomas Day’s life was complex and contradictory and this dressing bureau provides a fascinating portal through which to glimpse some of the struggles faced by America’s small minority of free people of color prior to the Civil War.
The bureau, along with other recent Winterthur acquisitions, will be on view in the Galleries in the spring 2017. Stay tuned in the coming months for more posts on new acquisitions!
Post by Nalleli Guillen, Sewell C. Biggs Curatorial Fellow, Museum Collections Department, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books. 1974
Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2008.
Marshall, Patricia Phillips and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll. Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2010.
Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1988.
Prown, Jonathan. “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation.” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 33, No. 4, Race and Ethnicity in American Material Life (Winter, 1998): 215-229.
Rogers, Patricia Dane and Laurel Crone Sneed. “The Missing Chapter in the Life of Thomas Day.” American Furniture (2013): 100-154.