Thomas Day was a complex man.
North Carolina’s most prominent cabinetmaker and architect before the Civil War, he was an innovator and an extraordinary artisan. A savvy businessman, his desks, chairs, staircases, and cabinetry were sought-after and cherished by customers as family treasures. A slaveholder, he was thought to be an ardent abolitionist.
And he was a free African-American.
Born in 1801 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, into a well-to-do family, Day learned the craft of cabinetmaking from his father, John Day, Sr. North Carolina’s laws were then more welcoming to free African-Americans and the family later moved across the state line to Warren County.
With some guidance from his father, Day opened his own cabinet shop in Milton in 1827. It was unusual for the time, since 96 percent of cabinetmakers in the state were white. But his artistry and skill quickly won fans and customers, including wealthy merchants, plantation owners, and leading politicians such as Gov. David S. Reid, who is believed to have ordered at least 47 pieces.
Day’s work was marked by fluid lines, spirals, flowing shapes and intricate carving – inspiring what was dubbed “Exuberant Style.”
In the Antebellum South, classical architecture and fine furniture were used by planters to signal economic success and graciousness. This led to Day’s shop becoming one of the most successful in the state. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, in a 2013 exhibition of Day’s work, noted that “his surviving furniture and architectural woodwork still represent the finest of nineteenth-century craftsmanship and aesthetics.”
Day wisely worked to build a sustainable business that reached beyond North Carolina, marketing in major cities such as New York and Philadelphia. In addition to his workshop, he purchased land to supply the timber he needed. Eventually, his workshop accounted for 11 percent of North Carolina’s furniture market.
The relationships built by his business success proved beneficial in Day’s personal life, as well. He had met and wished to marry, Aquilla Wilson, a free African-American woman who lived in Virginia. However, a statute passed in 1826 prohibited free African-Americans from migrating into North Carolina.
In what would be called grassroots lobbying today, Day organized his many white customers and white political leaders to petition the General Assembly on his behalf. In their petition supporting his marriage, they described Day as, “cabinet maker by trade, a first-rate workman, a remarkably sober, steady and industrious man, a highminded, good and valuable citizen.”
The campaign succeeded. Day and Wilson were married on Jan. 6, 1830, in Halifax County, Virginia, and moved to North Carolina.
The effort illustrated the approach Day needed to take to the issue of slavery. Northern abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglas, were able to use more political tactics in forcefully challenging the legal system. Day, on the other hand, relied on strong personal relationships, cultivated with his customers and others based on his character and reputation, when seeking exemption from existing rules to protect his business and his family.
Even though he was a slaveholder himself, with about a dozen slaves working in his shop as artisans alongside whites and free African-Americans, Day believed strongly in freedom for all people. In 1835, he travelled to Philadelphia to attend the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour in the United States. In the City of Brotherly Love, successful free African-Americans from all over the nation gathered and shared their commitment to abolition, individual liberty, and racial equality.
Another bold move, in 1849, was enrolling his children – Mary Ann, Thomas Jr, and Devereux – in a co-educational boarding school in Wilbraham, Massachusetts supported by white abolitionists. The principal and most of the faculty at what is now Wilbraham and Monson Academy were viewed as radical abolitionist educators.
Day was not the only member of his family to hold strong abolitionist beliefs. His brother, John Jr., had earlier emigrated to Liberia becoming a cabinetmaker, missionary and signer of Liberia’s Declaration of Independence.
By the 1850s, Day had the signature reputation as the most noted cabinetry shop in North Carolina. But the worldwide economic panic and fears of a coming war brought financial hardship and most of Day’s assets were sold to ensure that all debts were paid. He died in 1861.
Day’s work may be seen today at the Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Museum in Milton and at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. Walnut pews he crafted are located at the Milton Presbyterian Church, the Milton Baptist Church.
In 2018, a china press Day created in approximately 1845 was placed in the first-floor library of the North Carolina Executive Mansion, honoring one of the fathers of the state’s furniture industry.
By Eric Carpenter
 Journal of the House of Commons of North Carolina, 1830-1831, 238, Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.