Thomas Day’s legacy

Published 11:49 am Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Furniture -— what would we do without it? It’s a necessity and decoration for our home. Thomas Day, an African American, was a master craftsman in the field of furniture making. In 1801, Day was born in Dinwiddie County to John and Mourning Stewart Day.

Judy Moore

He had a brother, John Jr., who was born in 1797. Although it was unusual for free blacks in the South, Thomas and John Jr. were educated alongside whites in Sussex County.

Both men were very literate and well-educated based on the correspondence they left behind. Around 1820, Day’s family moved to Warren County, North Carolina east of Caswell County.

Thomas moved to Milton, North Carolina in 1823 joining John Jr. in his woodworking business. Both men were successful in their joint furniture business venture even though they experienced competition from whites.

However, in 1825, John Jr. left Milton and returned to Virginia but Thomas continued his work in the cabinetmaking business that would soon make him famous.

Subsequently, he met and married Aquilla Wilson in Halifax County on June 6, 1830.

They had three children, Mary, Devereaux and Thomas Jr.

Often called “The Master of Mahogany,” Thomas Day purchased property in Milton on Main Street in 1829 where he advertised his products in the Milton Gazette and Roanoke Advertiser newspapers seeking more customers. Interestingly, Day was a free black man but owned slaves.

Furthermore, in 1848, he bought the historic Union Tavern in Milton which became his residence and business. Thomas Day’s talents did not only stop at furniture making — he made mantles, stairs, windows and door frames, as well as decorative and functional trim.

Thomas’ furniture catered to the working class as well as the wealthy, which included governors and universities; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill being one. His business operation became one of the largest furniture and cabinetmaking businesses in North Carolina employing 12 laborers in the beginning.

In addition, Thomas became a major stockholder in the local branch of the North Carolina Bank and owned property outside of Milton.

Consequently, all did not go well with is enterprise because in the 1850s, Thomas Day suffered financial setbacks. In 1857, a national panic set in and he faced restrictions on what a free black man could do.

His business went into receivership and his friend and business partner, Dabney Terry, was named as trustee by the court of his property which included his home, shop, tools, steam engines, rental properties, wagons, furniture inventory, horse teams, harnesses and six slaves.

Thomas Day had until December 1859 to settle his account. His son, Thomas Jr., paid the debts and the property was returned to him, yet a court appointed trustee was still in force.

Thomas Jr. continued his father’s business through the Civil War and Reconstruction. The business was sold in 1871 and Thomas Jr. left Milton, North Carolina.

Ultimately, Day died in 1861 and is buried on property he once owned with a suitable monument that pays tribute to his legacy.

That legacy lives on because you can find his furnishings at the University of North Carolina, museums and fine homes in North Carolina and beyond.

Union Tavern is now a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places as well as undergoing restoration. The North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh has a special collection of his craft.

Judy Moore is a tour guide and public relations liaison at the Central High Museum. Her email address is