Early Life

Excerpted from American Furniture 2013, The Missing Chapter in the Life of Thomas Day. Patricia Dane Rogers and Laurel Crone Sneed. The Chipstone Foundation.

Thomas Day, a free Black cabinetmaker, is the most celebrated of North Carolina’s antebellum craftsmen. He was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia in 1801. His father, John Day, was a skilled cabinetmaker who worked in other trades as well, but always relied on woodworking to bring in money. Thomas and his brother John initially followed in their father’s footsteps, learning the skills of a cabinetmaker.


Brick two-story building with three front doors, 6 windows upstairs, three windows downstairs and two chimneys
Union Tavern, Milton, North Carolina, ca. 1818. (Photo, Tim Buchman.) Formerly known as the Yellow Tavern, Thomas Day’s home and workshop is on the town’s main street.

Thomas Day and his brother established themselves in the furniture business in Milton by 1823. Thomas Day became a prominent and well-respected citizen of the community. An act of 1826 prohibited free blacks from immigrating into the state. In 1830, Day married Aquilla Wilson, a free Black woman from nearby Halifax County, Virginia. He solicited help from his White neighbors to petition the General Assembly to allow his bride to join him in North Carolina. Day’s request was successful, and the couple would raise two sons and a daughter. In his almost forty years in Milton, Thomas Day built an extraordinary business, employing freedmen and enslaved people alike to craft stock lines of furniture and to fill custom orders for furniture and interior woodworking. By 1850, Day had the largest cabinetry shop in North Carolina. Although the following decade was his most productive period, buying and selling on credit and investing in expensive shop machinery left him in arrears by the mid-1850s. Day’s health also deteriorated, and in 1856 he sold off most of his farm. A year later, a national financial panic wiped out one of every three businesses and effectively ended his storied success. As Jonathan Prown has argued, rising racial tensions in the South also likely contributed to Day’s financial and physical demise. In the summer of 1858, the North Carolina credit agent for R. G. Dun & Co. of New York City took note of the state of the Milton furniture business in his ledger: “[Mr. Day is] [b]roke all to pieces—prop’y under a deed of trust. When he gets

Top left corner of a carved wooden mantle. Part of the carving is a man's face
Detail of the left term support of a chimneypiece documented to Thomas Day, William Long House, Blanch Community near Milton, North Carolina, ca. 1856. (Photo, Tim Buchman.) 

 through his present debts, he won’t have much of anything left.” A few months earlier, Day had declared insolvency, and a year after that most of his personal property was sold at public auction. Although six of his slaves, including David, were eligible for sale, their names do not appear on the deed recording the event. A notation in his Bible states that he died on “October 20, 1859 at the age of 59,” but he appears in the 1860 census. His actual date of death remains an unresolved mystery because while there is an alleged gravesite on his former farm near Milton, it has not been authenticated and no obituary has yet been found.

Master Craftsman

By 1850 the shop in Milton produced one-sixth of all furniture made in the state, a stunningly high proportion given that location. A pillar of the community, Day owned three properties in town, a 270-acre farm in the county, and shares in the local bank. After winning a contract from the University of North Carolina to furnish and fabricate 

architectural details for two debating society libraries and halls, he purchased the Union Tavern, the most significant piece of real estate in Caswell County. A fine example of federal architecture, the tavern had been a popular public hostel and stagecoach stop since its completion in 1818. Day’s ownership of property was not unusual since free blacks were not legally excluded from doing so. However, his purchase of Milton’s most prominent building and conversion of that structure into his home and business were at odds with the prevailing social norms of North Carolina. 

Newspaper advertisement that reads Thomas Day Cabinet Maker returns his thanks for the patronage he has received and wishes to inform his friends and the public that he has on hand and intends keeping a handsome supply of mahogony walnut and stained furniture the most fashionable and common bedsteads etc which he would be glad to sell very low. All orders in his line in repairing varnishing etc will be thankfully received and punctually attended to. Jan 17
Advertisement for Thomas Day’s shop, Milton Gazette & Roanoke Advertiser, March 1, 1827.