Late in the spring of 1835, a rising young African American furniture maker from Milton, North Carolina, named Thomas Day (1801–ca. 1861) traveled to Philadelphia (fig. 1). Under normal circumstances, it would have been logical for a professional artisan to visit this bustling commercial hub in search of new business contacts and the latest fashions in furniture making, but circumstances were not normal. After Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection in August 1831, white-on-black violence targeting free blacks and antislavery activity had increased and spread. It was dangerous for any free person of color, let alone a southerner, to be in the so-called City of Brotherly Love, where white mobs had attacked and demolished African American businesses and gathering places in that very year as well as in 1832 and 1834.
Day was in Philadelphia for a different purpose: to attend the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour in the United States. This event attracted the nation’s most prominent free African American antislavery leaders, a group described as “men of enterprise and influence” who were on hand to forward an ambitious and wide-ranging platform. In the course of five days, the attendees formally called for improved African American access to schools and jobs and a boycott of sugar produced by slave labor. They railed against the growing number of proposed plans for African colonization by former slaves and free blacks and pledged temperance, thrift, and moral reform. The delegates also vowed to blanket Congress with a pamphlet campaign to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia “and its territories.” Most emphatically, the group proclaimed its belief in universal liberty and racial equality: “We claim to be American citizens and we will not waste our time by holding converse with those who deny us this privilege unless they first prove that a man is not a citizen of that country in which he was born and reared.”
For a southern person to attend this event was startling enough. For a free person of color who ran a successful business in a small southern market center, going to Philadelphia was a radical act. Had Day’s white neighbors and patrons in the slave-powered tobacco region of Caswell County known of his presence at this historic black abolitionist meeting, he and his family would have been in grave danger. In North Carolina, anyone merely in possession of a pamphlet containing so much as a whiff of abolitionist propaganda risked being accused of sedition, a crime punishable by imprisonment, whipping, and even death. Indeed, in the years leading up to the Civil War, fomenting racial unrest was a felony in that state, and the meeting Day attended could not have posed a more seditious threat to the public order at his home some four hundred miles to the south.
Day’s participation in the convention is all the more remarkable because just five years earlier, North Carolina’s attorney general, Romulus M. Saunders, had informed members of the state legislature that they could trust Thomas Day, who was petitioning for residency status for his African American wife. “In the event of any disturbance amongst the Blacks,” Saunders stated, “I should rely with confidence upon a disclosure from him as he is the owner of slaves himself as well as real estate.” Saunders, a Milton resident, could not have envisioned his accommodating neighbor in a crowd promoting racial uplift and abolition. But Day’s presence there provides evidence of another side to him—a life that he kept hidden from his clients and neighbors. A growing body of evidence reveals that Thomas Day moved within abolitionist circles to a degree that Saunders and his southern white associates never would have imagined. In their eyes not only was he a good local businessman, but he was also a fellow slave owner. Enslaved African Americans worked not only in his furniture shop but also the tobacco fields and timberland that he owned outside Milton. Viewed through a modern lens, Thomas Day seems something of an enigma, a man in the middle whose life, work, and personal convictions regarding the most pressing cultural issue of the day moved back and forth. At the height of his career, he wrote to his daughter admonishing her to be pleased with her lot in Milton. Yet, he sent her and his two sons to Wesleyan Academy (now Wilbraham & Monson Academy), an abolitionist-led boarding school in faraway Wilbraham, Massachusetts.
Since 2009, when the present authors first published this new information about Day’s attendance at the convention in Philadelphia, a number of influential publications and exhibitions about him have come out. All overlook evidence that corroborates Day’s Philadelphia visit and his close personal relationships with known abolitionists who had direct ties to the antislavery movement. The pivotal discovery relating to Day’s abolitionist connections was finding his name on the list of attendees at the event in Philadelphia and the supporting proof of where he sought lodging. A newspaper advertisement called “A Card’’ firmly links him to these black conventioneers, and it first appeared in the July 11, 1835, issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper, The Liberator. More recently, the discovery of the diary of the Reverend John Francis Cook—a leading black abolitionist and delegate to the 1835 convention—provides further proof of Day’s long-standing ties to African American activists in the North. On May 12, 1850, Cook recorded a visit from Thomas Day of Milton, North Carolina, who was accompanied by two of his children. For historian Ira Berlin, the diary corroborating Day’s ties to Reverend Cook is highly significant. “We had a hint that Day was different because of his connection with the abolitionist school and his trip to the Philadelphia convention confirmed this.” But Cook’s words, he says, “completely change our understanding of Thomas Day” and offer further insight into the complex world of antebellum race relations, especially “relations between southern free people of color and those in the North.” Unearthed during the past seven years while conducting research for a Thomas Day documentary film-in-progress, The Thin Edge of Freedom: Thomas Day and the Free Black Experience, 1800–1860, these bits and pieces of information—the “Card,” Cook’s diary, and Day’s personal correspondence—add up to a new understanding of the cabinetmaker and his world.
For many decades, Thomas Day has been a celebrated historical figure. Thanks to early scholarly work by Carter G. Woodson and John Hope Franklin, this furniture maker’s legacy is well known within African American history circles. He is equally well known in the parts of north-central North Carolina and south-central Virginia where his furniture and architectural work were concentrated. Local interest also can be traced back to popular articles written in the 1920s and 1940s. Using the fading memories of Milton’s “old timers,” Caroline Pell Gunter reported that Day was educated in Boston and Washington. Although that was factually wrong, Gunter’s story greatly expanded recognition of this talented artisan and held a grain of truth. An essay that Day’s great-grandson William A. Robinson wrote for Woodson’s pioneering journal, The Negro History Bulletin, in 1950 shed further light on Day’s history, including the names of his children, the Massachusetts town where their school was located, and his own words—expressed in two previously unknown letters to his daughter. On a visit to Milton, the irony of seeing the town’s “old rotting mansions and formal gardens gone to pot” was not lost on Robinson. When an attempt to purchase a signature sideboard from a descendant of his great-grandfather’s wealthiest client was rebuffed, he reported the white man’s telling response, “We got to hold onto the past.”
In the 1970s Day was the focus of several important exhibitions and academic research projects. Ira Berlin cited Day’s work in his seminal book on free people of color, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. In 1975 the North Carolina Museum of History acquired eighteen pieces of furniture that Thomas Day was commissioned to make for Governor David Reid. This purchase, generously funded by members of the North Carolina chapter of the national black sorority and service organization Delta Sigma Theta, led to the first major exhibit of his work, “Thomas Day, Cabinetmaker.” Historian Rodney A. Barfield chronicled what was known about Day’s life in the exhibition catalogue in which an endnote contained a surprise: the cabinetmaker’s daughter, Mary Ann, had been educated in the North before she went to school in Wilbraham. Ironically, interest in Day accelerated after 1989, when a fire nearly destroyed his home and workshop. (The ensuing restoration spearheaded by a group of dedicated Milton citizens who organized themselves as the Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Restoration, Inc. garnered national publicity.) An award-winning children’s book published in 1994 was followed by intensive biographical research into Day’s life and family supervised by historian John Hope Franklin. During the course of that research, Laurel Sneed and Christine Westfall of the Thomas Day Education Project identified the cabinetmaker’s birthplace and the rest of his family, including his parents, John and Mourning Stewart Day, his brother, John Day Jr. (a well-known Baptist missionary to Liberia), and his maternal grandfather, Thomas Stewart, a “doctor” from Dinwiddie County, Virginia.
The Day renaissance reached critical mass in 1996 with a second show at the North Carolina Museum of History and a traveling exhibit with eleven pieces attributed to him. When a major North Carolina manufacturer unveiled twenty-four Thomas Day reproductions at the High Point international furniture market, the Washington Post took notice and came up with news of its own: the discovery of the cabinetmaker’s Bible in a Baltimore suburb and the revelation that his daughter-in-law was from the nation’s capital. Annie Washington, later Annie Day, was the first principal of the Stevens School, the premier grammar school for “colored” children in the District of Columbia. The school was named for Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist congressman from Pennsylvania and champion of the Thirteenth Amendment that ended slavery. Additional explorations of Day’s life and work included critical insights from two candidates for master’s degrees. Janie Leigh Carter transcribed and annotated letters written from Liberia by Day’s older brother John, and Michael A. Paquette, a master cabinetmaker, provided an insider’s perspective on the organization of Day’s shop and business practices. In 1998 the Winterthur Museum held a scholarly symposium on race and ethnicity in American material culture, where decorative arts and material culture scholar Jonathan Prown explored Day’s legacy as a craftsman. In light of recent interpretations, he specifically cautioned against Afro-centric interpretations of Day’s work without firmer scholarly and aesthetic evidence. Prown also suggested that some objects that were being attributed to Day, who typically did not label or sign his pieces, might have been made by other artisans, although perhaps some were initially trained in the maker’s shop.
Today, Thomas Day is in the national spotlight more than ever. Much of the new attention centers on an ambitious exhibition held at the North Carolina Museum of History, “Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker,” and the handsome catalogue raisonné that accompanied it, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. The authors, Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, raised the subject of his “potential” abolitionist connections but ultimately cast doubt on the issue. A subsequent installation at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum provided a more elegantly distilled presentation of Day’s work, focusing on his furniture as art. That exhibition similarly missed the opportunity to discuss the recent discoveries about Day’s multifaceted history and specifically to point out his close personal ties to leading abolitionists in the District of Columbia.
The purpose of this essay is not to focus on Thomas Day’s furniture making legacy but, rather, to add to his historiography the ever growing body of evidence related to his abolitionist ties, which in turn suggest a new way of thinking about Day as both a man and a maker. Added to what is already known, this work strives to illuminate the part of his life that he intentionally kept under wraps for his own protection and that of his family. In the process, it both expands and complicates our understanding of the man and effectively serves as a vital chapter that to date has been excluded from his extraordinary story.
Present-day visitors to the hamlet of Milton, North Carolina—population 166—cannot avoid either hearing about Thomas Day or encountering one of the many local sites associated with him. A common starting point for tours is the red brick Presbyterian Church on Broad Street, where he was not only a member but also made the handsome walnut pews that are still in use today (figs. 2, 3). Church records document his family’s membership from 1841 to 1864. Nearby, the template Day used to make the distinctive S-shaped arms of the pews was discovered during the restoration of the Union Tavern (fig. 4), his former home and workshop. But this is where facts about Day and the pews end and two conflicting oral traditions or interpretations begin.
According to one tale passed down in Milton, Day agreed to make the pews on condition that he would be allowed to sit in the main sanctuary so his slaves could look down from the balcony and see him and his family among the white parishioners. In the other version—told mainly by his descendants—he made the pews with the stipulation that his slaves would be allowed to join him and his family downstairs in the sanctuary. For cultural historian Juanita Holland, these tales reflect two dominant and very different contemporary views. In the first case, Thomas Day is a man who desires to segregate himself from his slaves and to “distance himself from being black,” and in the second, Day was “insinuating himself and those he cared about into the [white-dominated] system as much as he could.”
Thomas Day’s story is full of such contradictions; however, this essay will show that many of them can be explained by the fact that Day led a double life: one among white neighbors and customers who wished to maintain the status quo of race-based slavery, and another life among ardent black and white abolitionists. Day had to behave very differently in those polarized worlds.
Even a cursory glimpse into the world of Thomas Day opens up an understudied and underappreciated aspect of American history: the experience of so-called free African Americans in the generations between the American Revolution and the Civil War. “Free blacks” or “free people of color” constituted a caste that was neither white nor free, though technically they were not enslaved. Their ambiguous status kept them on the alert at all times. In the South in particular, they were considered a threat to the white slave-holding society and were increasingly subjected to restrictive laws designed to keep them under control. Franklin described their experience in North Carolina before the Civil War:
Free blacks in North Carolina, as Thomas Day came into manhood, could not move freely from one community to the other. If you wanted to go from Milton or Yanceyville to Raleigh, you needed permission to do that. And it was dangerous for you to do that, because . . . if you turned up where nobody knew you, it would be assumed that you were a runaway slave, and you had no defense against an accusation that you were a runaway. Now he could be seized, and he could be jailed, and the jailer could advertise that he had taken up a runaway slave. . . . Now if that free black, let’s say it was Thomas Day, said, “I am not a slave, I am free,” they’d say, “Yeah, how’re you going to prove it?” “I can prove it in court.” They’d say, “You have no standing in court. You cannot take an oath. You cannot swear on the Bible because you are not a person.” You see?
Southern states, including North Carolina, enacted repressive laws after widely publicized slave insurrections in Virginia in 1800 and South Carolina in 1822. They clamped down even harder after 1829, when David Walker, a free black North Carolina–born abolitionist in Boston, published a bold call for slaves to rise up and fight for their rights. Walker’s appeal unapologetically justified violence if whites would not acknowledge that slavery was a sin, repent, and embrace African Americans as their brothers in Christian fellowship. In North Carolina, the cluster of restrictive statutes included the “seditious publications” act, which banned any printed material that might “excite insurrection, conspiracy or resistance in slaves or free negroes and persons of colour within the State.” From 1830 on, it was illegal for free people of color to teach a slave to read or write, to marry a slave, to preach in public, to “peddle” goods outside the county in which they lived without a license, or to leave the state for more than ninety days and then seek to reenter. It was also next to impossible to free a slave. Anyone contemplating such an action had to publish intent six weeks in advance, petition the state’s Superior Court, and pay the astronomical sum of “one thousand dollars for each slave named.” The penalty for “concealing,” “harboring” or “helping a slave escape from the state” was “death without benefit of clergy.”
It was in such a legally and socially circumscribed milieu that Day lived and worked for more than three decades, making furniture and architectural components for prominent local planters, merchants, and leading citizens, including former North Carolina governors David Lowry Swain and David Settle Reid. In 1847, when he was president of the University of North Carolina, Swain hired Day for a major project. In 1855 and 1858 Day filled large furniture orders for Reid after the latter had become a U.S. senator. In an era when most free African Americans in the South were illiterate, untrained in a marketable skill, and denigrated as a group, Thomas Day stood out as an educated, accomplished artisan, businessman, and family man whose talent, personal integrity, work ethic, and seeming acceptance of prevailing regional values won him the respect of the white community. Making exceptions for individual free blacks who were upright citizens—contributors to their communities who supported the status quo of white domination or gave the appearance of doing so—was part of the white mind-set in the old South. According to historian Melvin Patrick Ely,
There are always white hardliners who go out of their way to disparage free blacks, declaring that people of African descent can’t possibly succeed as free people. And at the same time you find free blacks and whites doing business together, sometimes marrying, founding churches together, even hitching up wagons and moving west together. So what’s going on is considerable fluidity and inconsistency against the backdrop of a pretty thoroughly repressive system.
Day was certainly treated as an exception, not only because he owned slaves but also because his trade served the needs of the local planter class. In addition to making household furniture, Day’s shop produced cribs, caskets, and architectural components. Although he kept up with the latest designs, Day’s repertoire was innovative and, occasionally, idiosyncratic. His newel posts are unique in being tightly spiraled or formed in a shape resembling his initials (figs. 5, 6). Similarly, some of his otherwise conservatively designed sideboards have exuberant and decidedly oversize ornamental scrolls (fig. 7).
It is likely that Day found inspiration in popular British and American design books, but high-style furniture imported into the piedmont region of North Carolina may also have influenced his work. As Marshall notes, Day “developed his aesthetic vision over time. The majority of his documented furniture dates from 1840 to 1860, roughly the last twenty years of his life. The earliest of these present his interpretations of somewhat staid European American designs, while the later pieces are full of motion.” Day’s work was also shaped by interactions with other regional craftsmen, including the Siewers brothers from Salem in 1838. According to some furniture historians, the “lounges” Day began to produce a few years later resemble contemporaneous Moravian examples in their incorporation of German classical, or Biedermeier, designs (figs. 8, 9). Although Day was receptive to new designs and endeavored to offer his clients the latest furniture fashions, his work remained highly individualistic (fig. 10). For art historian Richard Powell, Day’s work reflects an improvisational impulse analogous to jazz.
The recent exhibition and the publication Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color offer a much-needed overview of his material legacy as a maker of furniture and architectural detail, but a fuller understanding of his life and work hinges on incorporating the newly found evidence about his abolitionist connections. This essay does not posit that the maker’s progressive social and political sentiments shaped his work, but it does aim to present that side of the story for future scholars to take into account. This new understanding begins with the discovery of the newspaper advertisement in which Day and others praised the amenities of the black boardinghouse they patronized in Philadelphia during the Fifth Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour.
Serena Gardiner, an active member of that city’s large free black community, owned the boardinghouse and provided rooms and meals for twenty-one men, including Thomas Day, for the duration of the convention. These boarders, in turn, signed the “Card” at the end of their stay, recommending her establishment as well as citing their reason for being in the city (fig. 11):
We, the undersigned, having availed ourselves during the session of the colored Convention held in Philadelphia, June 1835 of Mrs. Serena Gardiner’s select boarding house, No. 13, Elizabeth-street, are happy to say, that with its pleasant situation, the cleanliness of its apartments, the good order therein preserved, and its good table, we were highly pleased; and to persons of color visiting this city, who are prepared to appreciate the above advantages, we freely recommend her house, as possessing superior inducements to their patronage and support.
Eager for additional business, Gardiner published the “Card” in the Liberator (figs. 12, 13). It included the names and home states of all the men. Three were from the South, including Day, who appears last on the list as “Thomas Day, North Carolina.” In her exuberance to advertise her business, Gardiner was not thinking that it would be dangerous for these southern men at home to be identified and linked to abolitionists in a national antislavery publication.
Since Day was a common name and other Thomas Days resided in North Carolina, it is fitting that the identity of this person be questioned. Census records show that six men named Thomas Day lived in the state around this time. However, four were white and must be excluded since, with the exception of a handful of well-known white abolitionists named as “honorary delegates,” the convention was black and so was the boardinghouse. No white North Carolinians would have patronized an establishment for “genteel” and/or “respectable persons of color,” as Gardiner and her husband, Peter, characterized it in multiple Liberator ads. Of the two black Thomas Days, the Caswell County cabinetmaker is the only one who fits the professional profile of Gardiner’s elite and educated guests. The only other free black named Thomas Day was an illiterate, impoverished tenant farmer from Person County. His descendant Aaron Day, a noted genealogist, said that his ancestor did not have the means to travel far beyond Person County.
The risk taken by Day in attending the convention cannot be overstated, and he would not have traveled north to meet with high-profile black activists in Philadelphia unless he was seriously interested in their beliefs and policies. The city, with its frequent white-on-black mob violence and escalating attacks on organized antislavery activity, was simply not a safe place for anyone of African descent in the late spring of 1835, and Day was the young parent of at least two children dependent on the well-being of their father.
Evidence of Day’s presence in Philadelphia and his identification as a black abolitionist was hiding in plain sight for more than thirty years in The Black Abolitionist Papers, 1830–1865: A Guide to the Microfilm Edition. Issued before the release of the five-volume print series, The Black Abolitionist Papers, the Guide is an index to the massive collection of microfilmed documents and narratives gathered to identify the most significant black abolitionists in the Americas and the British Isles. The scholarly foreword explains how the activist figures were selected, and the Guide lists Thomas Day and all the guests at Mrs. Gardiner’s boardinghouse. The “Card,” the document that placed them there, has been part of the public record since 1981, when the Guide was published, but until 2009 no researcher had ever identified Thomas Day, the black abolitionist in Philadelphia, as the cabinetmaker from Milton.
The discovery of the “Card” casts new light on Day’s secret life and suggests the need to consider more closely his ancestry and formative years. Until the publication of Sneed and Westfall’s 1995 research report, little was known about Day before his arrival in Milton. Census records indicated that he was born in Virginia but did not specify exactly where he was from or how he ended up in North Carolina. A passing mention of John Day Sr. in the Chancery Court records of Dinwiddie County brought the identities of Thomas’s parents and grandfather to light. Citing “John Day and Mourning, his wife, formerly Mourning Stewart, one of the heirs . . . of Thomas Stewart the elder,” the document contains details pertaining to the estate of a free black man, “Dr. Thomas A. Stewart,” and listed the spouses of his many heirs. It was significant because an eighty-four-year-old woman named “Morning S. Day,” presumably Thomas Day’s mother, was listed in his Milton household in the 1850 census. She and Mourning Stewart Day turned out to be one and the same.
Mourning’s father, Thomas Stewart, like his grandson and namesake Thomas Day, was a prominent member of his community as well as a slaveholder. While not common, free black ownership of slaves was a fact of life not only in the South but also in the North. According to Franklin, “at no time during the antebellum period were free negroes in North Carolina without slaves.” In Stewart’s 1804 will, the first of two, he left a female slave to his grandson, “John Day, the son of Mourning,” which made it clear that Mourning and John Day had a son named John as early as that year. In his study of hundreds of free black families born in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, genealogist Paul Heinegg listed a John Day, born in 1797, who had immigrated to Liberia and become a well-known missionary and statesman. Because that John Day was identified as a “cabinetmaker,” Heinegg hypothesized that he was Thomas’s brother. Heinegg had no proof of a fraternal relationship between the two Days but cited, as a source, a eulogy for John prepared at the time of his death. It appeared in the African Repository, the mouthpiece of the American Colonization Society, the organization that spearheaded the colonization of Liberia. The eulogy revealed that “Rev. John Day” had begun his work abroad with the “Northern Baptist Board of Missions” but had “subsequently become connected with the Southern Baptist Convention.” From 1847 to 1859 he had served as superintendent for the Southern Baptist Foreign Missions Board and had overseen its missionary work in Sierra Leone, Central Africa, and Liberia “up to the hour of his death.” Heinegg was correct in speculating that John was Thomas’s brother.
John Day was one of the most prolific correspondents of all nineteenth-century Baptist missionaries. He sent more than one hundred letters to the Reverend James B. Taylor, the corresponding secretary of the church’s Foreign Mission Board. One John Day letter, written in 1847, confirmed what the court records from Dinwiddie County had implied: “My mother was the daughter of a coloured man of Dinwiddie County, Virginia, whose name was Thomas Stewart, a medical doctor, but when or how he obtained his education in that profession, I know not.”
Thomas Stewart, Thomas and John Day’s grandfather, was born circa 1727 and was the son of a black man who remains unidentified and a white indentured servant, most likely a woman named Elizabeth Stuard, from whom, by law, he inherited his free legal status. Before the American Revolution, most southern free blacks were the mixed-race progeny of black enslaved or indentured men and white female indentured servants. Invariably identified in his adult years as “Dr. Stewart” in the tax rolls of Dinwiddie and Mecklenburg counties, Virginia, he owned substantial property and was by all accounts a well-known and respected local practitioner. Thomas Day’s mother, Mourning Stewart Day, was the second daughter of at least fourteen children born to Dr. Stewart. She was the first child born after the death of his first wife and was apparently named in commemoration of the mourning period. In his autobiographical 1847 letter, John Day also identified his father as a cabinetmaker named John Day (Sr.). A letter written by the missionary’s widow in 1860 confirmed that John and Thomas Day were brothers.
Thomas Day was born into this respected and well-educated family in rural Dinwiddie County, about twenty-five miles southwest of Petersburg. When he was six years old, his father, John Day Sr., moved the family to neighboring Sussex County, where John Jr., age ten, was boarding with a white acquaintance and being educated by white Baptist tutors. Thomas was apparently sent to the same school as his brother, and their father trained both sons in his trade. The Days moved in 1807, the same year Congress outlawed importation of slaves from Africa, but conditions for free black families in Virginia were precarious at best. Several factors, in addition to the opportunity to educate the sons, could have influenced the family’s decision to move to Sussex, including prospects for work and an opportunity to buy property. Sussex had, in addition to Baptists, sizable Quaker and Methodist populations, and the Days were aware that members of those denominations could be important allies. Between 1784 and 1806, more than seventy-five Quaker and Methodist slaveholders in Sussex County manumitted 378 slaves. During the late eighteenth century, Quakers had become increasingly opposed to slavery (fig. 14), including those in Virginia, which had more free and enslaved people of African descent than any other state. One study shows that as early as 1767, Virginia Quakers were “training enslaved people to be laborers in a free market. Monthly meetings loaned money to African American tradesmen and established apprenticeships for their children.”
Sussex lies northeast of Greensville County, where the family also had strong ties. Free black Days and Stewarts had lived in Greensville since before the American Revolution, and John Day Jr. was born there, at Hick’s Ford (later Hicksford and now Emporia) in 1797. In an autobiographical letter, he claimed that his mixed-race father was the illegitimate son of a white woman and her black coach driver and was born in South Carolina and reared in North Carolina. Greensville County records strongly support, however, the view that John Day Sr. had Virginia roots, like his sons’ maternal grandparents, the Stewarts. Heinegg’s research points to another free black Greensville County man named John Day as the father of John Day Sr. This John Day paid taxes in the county from 1782 until his death in 1802. More to the point, he owned properties adjacent to known acquaintances of the free black Days, members of the Robinson and Jeffreys families.
John and Thomas Day came of age during tumultuous times that included white retaliation for slave uprisings in which free blacks were often implicated for no reason other than they were already free. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, gradual improvements in roads and transportation had increased the flow of manufactured products, as large urban shops sold domestic goods and furniture through wider networks. This, in turn, affected many local artisans who could not compete with cheaper, and often more fashionable, factory-made products, including furniture. John Day Sr. was one of the artisans who had a hard time staying ahead financially, in part because he developed a drinking problem. John Jr. later recalled his own youthful efforts to keep his head above water after his father became “intemperate”:
In 1817 my father went over to North Carolina and left me in Dinwiddie to pay a debt he owed to Mr. John Bolling. I carryed on a little cabinetmaking business in a village in that part of the county . . . paid my father’s debt, and was likely to do well in the world’s estimation, but associating myself with—young white men, who were fond of playing cards, contracted that habit. Mr. John L. Scott, a merchant and friend of mine came . . . to see me and I told him that if I continued in that place . . . I should ruin myself. He procured a shop for me about 7 miles off of Mrs. Ann Pryor’s. I commenced well . . . but a drunken journeyman set fire to my shop and consumed all I had. The neighbors spoke of reinstating me, but I would not accept any thing but a coat and hat of my friend J. L. Scott. I went on my feet to Warren County, North Carolina and got in possession of my father’s tools, borrowed money off a gentleman, and commenced work there.
It is not clear where Thomas and his mother were while John Jr. was working off the debt. Possibly Thomas worked for his father in North Carolina or spent some of the time helping his older brother meet family obligations while honing his own cabinetmaking skills.
Research initiated in 1996 explored three centuries of Day family history and led to the discovery of Thomas Day’s Bible, which was in the possession of his great-great-great-grandson Thomas Day V (fig. 15). Like many family Bibles, Thomas’s is full of names and dates, including that of Annie Washington Day, that establish Thomas Day’s connections to people in the North, including leading abolitionists. One of the most important names was that of N. H. Harding, who inscribed the Bible in 1843 and identified himself as Day’s “friend and pastor.”
As noted by historian Peter H. Wood, “if Thomas Day offers one window into the complex world of antebellum race relations, his minister provides another.” The Reverend Nehemiah Henry Harding, the minister of the Milton Presbyterian Church and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, was from New England (fig. 16). The scion of a family of seafaring merchants, he experienced a shipboard conversion during a storm and changed careers. He arrived in Milton in 1835, the same year that Thomas Day attended the black convention in Philadelphia. “Slavery was the most controversial issue of the day,” says Wood, “and everyone had strong opinions. Advocates could be found for armed revolt, peaceful petitioning, immediate freedom, gradual emancipation, African colonization or continued enslavement. As controversy swirled, individuals shifted their stance on the matter.” This is particularly clear in the case of Harding, who “wrestled with this thorny issue.” In the 1830s, on visits home to Brunswick, Maine, the abolitionist hotbed where Harriet Beecher Stowe would later write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harding’s position on slavery continued to evolve. On one visit, after a decade of living in a slave state, he said he was “pro slavery” when a Congregational minister asked where he stood. But, after returning to the South, he wrote back to the minister and said that he had experienced a change of heart. “After mature deliberation,” Harding insisted, “I am now a strong-antislavery man . . . the sworn enemy of slavery in all its forms and with all its evils.” During a subsequent visit north, he shifted course again and made what northern activists considered to be “‘gratuitous and invidious remarks about the increasing militancy of abolitionists.’ Asked to read an announcement addressing ‘the duty of Christians . . . toward the colored people’ he refused and preached a sermon warning Brunswick’s citizens to beware of excessive zeal regarding their ‘duty to the colored people.’” Harding likely assumed the changing story was playing out only in his inner circle, but his vacillations became public when a local antislavery advocate printed his letter in the Liberator in 1838 and parts of the letter were extracted and republished by Theodore Dwight Weld in the influential American Anti-Slavery Society publication, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (fig. 17):
I am greatly surprised that I should in any form have been the apologist of a system so full of deadly poison to all holiness and benevolence as slavery—the concocted essence of fraud, selfishness and cold-hearted tyranny and the fruitful parent of unnumbered evils to the oppressor and the oppressed, the one thousandth part of which has never been brought to the light.
According to Wood, the influence of the book in which Harding’s harsh condemnation of the institution of slavery appeared was second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Perhaps Harding’s views changed again during the last decade of his life through interaction with his most prominent black parishioner. . . . After all, he and Thomas Day were learning from experience that racial enslavement in the United States might outlast them both and that they needed to be guarded in their stated public opinions if they were to endure and prosper in North Carolina.”
Racial enslavement was indeed deeply rooted in the upper South and also in Thomas Day’s own family, going back to his maternal grandfather and slave owner Thomas Stewart. Recent research into Day’s formative years has uncovered an 1820 map of Dinwiddie County that pinpoints his birthplace: Thomas Stewart’s homestead (fig. 18). The search also yielded the first contemporaneous confirmation of Stewart’s medical practice, which appeared in the November 13, 1778, edition of the Virginia Gazette:
I Nathaniel Hobbs of Dinwiddie County do hereby certify, that in the month of May last my negro boy Tom received a kick from a stallion in the forehead, which deprived him of his senses from Sunday until Tuesday evening in which time he lost a quantity of blood, and many ounces of matter, supposed to be part of his brain, but by the assistance of Dr. Thomas Stewart, of Dinwiddie, and his specifick balsam, he is now perfectly well and as sound and sensible as ever.
Beyond dispensing patent medicines, Stewart was a successful farmer and entrepreneur. He also was a free person of color who achieved a surprising level of success and who passed on his ideals and love of learning to his offspring and grandchildren. Details culled from the chancery proceedings and property records revealed that, in addition to large tracts of land, he owned a mill and a popular tavern located in his “mansion house.” He ran these diverse operations with the help of his family and numerous enslaved workers.
In 1810, the year he died, Stewart owned more than nine hundred acres in Dinwiddie County and, at the peak of his ownership, may have had as many as thirty-two slaves. His upward mobility undoubtedly was largely achieved through some combination of talent, resolve, and good fortune. However, the ownership of enslaved men, women, and children was another central factor in his climb, and this raised obvious questions about the mixed-race doctor’s relationship with his slaves. Evidence suggests that Stewart’s connection to his enslaved workers was not as exploitative as one might expect, given his driving ambition. In his 1804 will, he listed twenty-seven slaves by name and requested that sixteen of them be freed on his death. He also asked that some unnamed boys “whom I have emancipated” each be sent to school and then trained in a “good trade.” The will was contested by “divers witnesses,” likely family members to whom the slaves were more valuable as property that could be sold, and, based on their testimony, the court refused to admit the will to the record. After Stewart’s death, twenty slaves he named in his will sued his heirs for their freedom but, ultimately, were unsuccessful in court.
By 1820 both John and Thomas Day were in North Carolina living with their parents in a place identified in early census records as the Nutbush Voting District. This rural area lies in modern Bullocksville in what is now Vance County but was then part of Warren County. During this period, as in earlier generations, many free blacks crossed the Virginia border, heading south to escape escalating racist laws in the Old Dominion and to find cheaper, more fertile land in North Carolina. Soil depletion, the result of decades of tobacco cultivation, was another factor that compelled movement out of Southside Virginia. In John Day Sr.’s case, finding work was the likely motive. Many fine houses were built in the Nutbush region, and the inventory of tools from his 1832 estate papers suggests he was a house joiner as well as a furniture maker.
In 1821 the Day brothers left Nutbush. Thomas, then twenty years old, went to Hillsborough, North Carolina’s former capital. He opened a furniture-making shop, which he described in an advertisement as a “Stand,” where he produced walnut and mahogany furniture. John Jr. moved to Milton, forty miles north of Hillsborough, to begin formal training to become a Baptist preacher. After completing his studies, however, white Baptist examiners accused him of misinterpreting church doctrine and refused to admit him to their ranks. It was a particularly disillusioning setback, and John strongly believed that he had been disapproved on spurious grounds. With a wife and young family to support, he needed to find a different way to uphold his beliefs and find his way in the world. One prospect was to leave America.
Many disheartened free blacks were drawn to the idea of migrating to Africa after the formation of the American Colonization Society in 1816. This did not reflect disloyalty to America but, rather, a loss of hope that Americans of African descent would ever be treated equally in the United States. “We love this country and its liberties,” wrote a free black man in Illinois, “if we could share an equal right in them.” White politicians who feared slave unrest, especially in the South, endorsed the idea of resettlement. In the dozen years after the American Colonization Society acquired control of Liberia in West Africa, more than 250 colonization societies sprang up across the South (fig. 19). Quakers and other religious sects initially supported colonization as a humane alternative to racial oppression in the United States. Eventually, however, many early supporters rejected the colonization movement as a racist scheme to rid the country of African Americans. Yet, along with nearly four thousand other free people of color from Virginia, John Day pulled up stakes and took his family to Africa in 1830, and over the course of the next half century, nearly fifteen thousand free black Americans did the same. The manifest of the ship on which Day traveled listed his occupation as cabinetmaker. In the years that followed, he emerged as a major religious and political leader, a proponent of Liberian colonization, and a critic of the institution of slavery.
Historian Jill Baskin Schade recently discovered evidence that John Day initially worked as a cabinetmaker in Monrovia and that some of his furniture was exported to the American market. A March 1835 advertisement in the African Repository listed “African curiosities,” including furniture made of Liberian wood by John Day, “a first rate cabinet-maker.” Another advertisement placed in May 1836 reported that orders had been received from Baltimore and that two worktables had been shipped. Day’s work as a missionary appears to have begun just two months later.
Thomas Day had moved to Milton in the mid-1820s, and he remained in North Carolina. Perhaps recalling the ways that his grandfather had successfully navigated a slave-based society, he invested in the American free enterprise system despite its glaring inequalities. Day must have realized that in order to thrive in the South as a free person of color, he had to position himself as a part of mainstream society. He bought property in Milton and in 1827 opened a furniture-making shop. In an early advertisement in the Milton Gazette & Roanoke Advertiser, Day thanked his patrons for their furniture orders and assured them of punctual service (fig. 20). By this time, it appears that he was already a well-known and respected figure, one who gained unusual support from North Carolina’s white political class.
In 1826 the North Carolina state legislature enacted a law barring free blacks from entering the state. The law stipulated a $500.00 penalty, and anyone unable to pay could “be held in servitude” for up to ten years. After marrying Aquilla Wilson, a free black woman from nearby Halifax County, Virginia, on January 6, 1830, Day solicited help from his white neighbors, sixty-one of whom signed a petition requesting an exemption for his wife. The most prominent signature was that of Attorney General Saunders on the accompanying affidavit. This remarkable imprimatur from the state’s highest legal authority not only expedited Day’s legal request but also legitimized him in the eyes of the most powerful members of the state’s gentry.
The petition offers a telling example of the complicated and, at times, seemingly counterintuitive ways in which Day needed to operate in order to ensure his own financial success and local acceptance of his family. In the North, free African Americans and former slaves, like Frederick Douglass, who escaped enslavement in Maryland in 1838, could risk taking strong public stands against slavery. Day’s situation, below the Mason-Dixon Line, however, was far more precarious and required subtle forms of resistance. According to Ira Berlin:
He [Day] accepts the law but requests exceptional treatment. This makes him different from someone like Douglass who challenges the legal system and demands the abolition of slavery and the discriminatory racist laws that support it. . . . We see a “personal” approach—enlisting one’s customers and neighbors rather than . . . directly challenging the . . . system.
As with many other successful African American business people, Day developed strategies that allowed him to live and work within the prevailing system and thrive as a member of the local community. By all outward accounts, he appeared to be someone who played by the rules of the day and did not stray too far afield from accepted social practice. But as was the case with many other free people of color, Day seems to have led a far more complicated life, one that was characterized by covert actions and beliefs that ran counter to his public persona.
Political scientist James C. Scott provides useful terms to describe the ways that subordinate groups, including free and enslaved African Americans during the antebellum period, resisted domination and found ways to survive and live within extremely constrained, inhumane circumstances. Scott’s theory spells out the universal practice of marginalized people who pretend to support their suppressors and their institutions rather than suffer the dire consequences they would incur with overt challenges. They protect themselves by wearing a “mask” of accommodation. In North Carolina, a frontal attack on racist laws by a black man would have provoked certain retaliation. Scott calls the professed acceptance of the status quo a “public transcript,” and what subordinated people actually say and do behind their suppressors’ backs, a “hidden transcript.” From his perspective, Day and other free blacks in the South were forced to create a “public transcript,” as both political strategy and survival tactic. Day’s apparent acceptance of state law and his personal petition for his wife’s exemption from it did not overtly threaten the racist status quo. Instead, the petition demonstrated that he was willing to work within the established system. Basing their actions on the side of Thomas Day they thought they knew, the leading citizens of Milton had publicly attested to their belief that he seemed cautious and accommodating on racial matters, unwilling to organize with others openly to fight long-standing discrimination. Scott takes note of the “immense political terrain that lies between quiescence and revolt.” It is this political “middle ground” between complete acquiescence and outright defiance that Day and many other free blacks in the South cultivated for their survival.
Had Day lived long enough or written more, scholars today might have clearer insight into his true feelings about slavery as well as his strategies for navigating society in Milton. Despite lack of access to whatever thoughts he privately entertained, some understanding can be gleaned from a variety of historical sources. The furniture maker’s sole specific pronouncement on the subject is ambiguous. When his daughter Mary Ann blamed her older brother Devereux’s “depraved” behavior on being raised in a “shop of the meanest of God’s avocation,” Day rose to his own defense, praising the “respectable” character of the shop and the honesty of its “hands,” many of whom were not slaves at that time. Mary Ann went on to claim that “being born in the Oppressive South has had a miserable influence on our family.” Again, Day assumed the mantle of a loving father who seemingly was content with the world that he had created for his family: “It pleased the Lord to create Adam and Eve in Eden & it also pleased the Lord to permit you to [be] born in Milton & the best thing you do will be to improve the privileges before you and make yourself acquainted with useful learning and embrace all possible opportunities for spiritual and temporal knowledge.”
Day’s measured response indicates that he understood his marginalized position and the necessity of being well regarded by white elites. However, some of his comments are open to different interpretations. In a letter to Mary Ann, Day wrote, “Ever regard your Caracter more than your life.” Although this can be read as an admonition to maintain respectability at all costs, he may have been advising his daughter, in somewhat veiled manner, to remain true to her own values no matter what situation arises. Maintaining an unassailable reputation was the best protection for Day and his family. Ownership of slaves gave him something in common with his white neighbors and reaffirmed their belief that he was an exception to the prevailing assumption of white superiority and black inferiority. Yet, just as Day’s writings are more complicated than they first appear, so too was his ownership of slaves. The respect accorded to Day by fellow African Americans and white activists in the abolitionist cause suggests motives other than profit and self-protection.
Slavery was pervasive in the South, and free African Americans of means—almost all, like Day, of mixed racial heritage and appearance—were often active participants. Southern whites were three times more likely to own slaves than southern free blacks, a group that constituted a relatively small percentage of the total population, but in 1830 in North Carolina alone, nearly two hundred free blacks owned slaves. According to historian Juliet E. K. Walker, a leading scholar of the African American business tradition, “Facing competition from slave-owning white craftsmen, free black craftsmen needed slave ownership to have any chance of success. In a slave owning society, was there an alternative to unpaid labor?” Slave ownership also guaranteed a dependable source of labor that, in Day’s case, could be supplemented with hired help when a particular job paid enough to justify it.
One of the challenges to understanding ownership of slaves by free blacks is interpreting and weighing the evidence. Most information pertaining to slaves in free black households comes from census records, which are notoriously prone to error. Census takers did not require the person being interviewed to provide documentation regarding the number of family members and/or slaves in a household or their ages. And because slave ownership was one of the best ways for free blacks to demonstrate compliance with the prevailing social system, it was in their best interest to report and even inflate the numbers of slaves they owned. Increasingly, historians are giving credence to this “self-protection” motive. Of course, owners had to pay property tax on slaves claimed to be in their possession, but for a free African American living in the racist South, that “insurance” may have been well worth the price.
Thomas Day took a hands-on approach to his business, acting as workshop manager, craftsman, and salesman. As the owner of his shop, he employed whites and free blacks as well as slaves throughout his career (figs. 21, 22). When he recruited five white Moravian artisans, including the Siewers brothers from Salem at the end of the 1830s, Day owned three slaves and employed “some fifteen hands, both white and colored.” Records show that he owned slaves for at least three decades, increasing his holdings from two in 1830 to fourteen at the apex of his career in 1850. The “Slave Schedule” for the U.S. census that year indicates that six of the fourteen were males between the ages of fifteen and thirty and four were children under ten, the youngest being seven years old. According to this same census, five of the seven cabinetmakers in the shop were white, the only free blacks being Day and his seventeen-year-old son Devereux, both designated mulatto or mixed race. By 1860 he was one of only eight free black slaveholders remaining in North Carolina, with two slaves listed in residence and one as fugitive. Many free blacks left the state in the decades before the Civil War as a result of increasingly constricting social and economic conditions.
Day bravely countered the rising racial restrictions by traveling beyond the scrutiny of white Milton, in part to explore what the abolitionist movement had to offer, including educational and professional opportunities. The 1835 convention, which took place at Philadelphia’s second largest black church, had been heavily promoted in the abolitionist press, and the city was packed with attendees who “despite their wealth and degree of refinement . . . could not be sure of getting a room in one of Philadelphia’s hotels.” Eleven of Serena Gardiner’s guests were official delegates, and three had been delegates to previous conventions, as had her husband. In addition to Day, the gentlemen she listed included Charles Lenox Remond, a fiery orator from Salem, Massachusetts, and a regular on the international antislavery lecture circuit; Joseph Jenkins Roberts of Monrovia, the future first and seventh president of Liberia and close friend of the Reverend John Day; William Hamilton of New York, the keynote speaker at the previous convention; Samuel Hardenburgh, also from New York, grand marshal in the parade that marked the end of slavery in New York State; and William Whipper, a Pennsylvania coal and lumber merchant, one of the wealthiest free black men in America (figs. 23, 24). Whipper operated a major Underground Railroad station in Columbia, Pennsylvania, for more than twenty years, often concealing fugitive slaves in his company’s shipping cars. After slavery ended and he was safe to discuss his role, he described his home, a safe harbor at the end of a bridge across the Susquehanna, as a main “point of entry” for fugitives fleeing Maryland and Virginia.
Others who signed the “Card” included three Washington, D.C., delegates: Dr. James H. Fleet, John Francis Cook, and Augustus Price. An accomplished music teacher, Fleet was “conceded to be the foremost colored man in culture, in intellectual force and general influence in the District at that time.” Cook was a former slave who devoted his life to educating black children and in 1841 founded the esteemed Washington institution now known as the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church (fig. 25). Emancipated two and a half years before the Philadelphia convocation, he served as its secretary and was an organizer of the American Moral Reform Society. (Its formation was a centerpiece of the 1835 convention, and the organization actually superseded the convention originally planned for the following year.)
Cook, born in 1810, came from a family of activists. His aunt Alethia Browning Tanner purchased her own freedom and that of at least eighteen friends and relatives, including Cook, his mother, and his siblings. She was an astute real estate investor and a leader of Washington’s early free black community. She also purchased slaves with the express purpose of setting them free. Cook’s uncle George Bell cofounded the city’s first school for colored children in 1807. Cook’s son George later became the first superintendent of the District’s “colored schools,” and his son John served as the city’s tax collector and represented the city at three Republican National Conventions during Reconstruction. At the time of the convention, Augustus Price, a co-author of Whipper’s keynote speech—the American Moral Reform Society’s manifesto—was an aide to Andrew Jackson, the sitting president of the United States. Described as “the president’s trusted servant,” “private secretary,” and “White House doorkeeper,” Price was “present at private White House meetings and cabinet discussions” and also “apparently helped the president draft important documents.”
Cook and Price were deeply involved in local abolitionist efforts. Cook had organized a secret debating club, where he led passionate antislavery discussions and distributed “seditious” publications such as the Liberator to young blacks. Following the June convention, he “breathed the gospel of freedom and reform as never before . . . and told them that white Americans and their laws sorely abused them as people of color.” That August Washington experienced its first major episode of white mob violence against African Americans. Hundreds of armed white men attacked black people, and both Price and Cook were targeted. After his school was nearly destroyed, Cook fled the city on horseback and headed for Columbia, Pennsylvania, where his friend William Whipper resided. For distributing incendiary papers “from the North,” Price was chased by an angry mob that threatened to “enter and search the White House” for him. Price was admitted but the mob was stopped at the door.
While attending the 1835 convention, Day must have been struck by the cultural contrasts between Milton and Philadelphia. The northern city had a large free black population and was the birthplace of the first abolition society established in the western world. By 1838 the city was home to sixteen black churches, twenty-three day schools, four literary societies, three debating societies, three libraries, four temperance societies, and eighty relief or beneficial organizations. It would be difficult to imagine Day not visiting one or more of these organizations, socializing with activists developing the convention platform at Mrs. Gardiner’s boardinghouse, or seeking out local power brokers who once called North Carolina home.
A short list of transplanted North Carolinians living in Philadelphia at this time included former slave Frederick Augustus Hinton, a prosperous barber from Raleigh; Hinton’s father-in-law, oyster seller Richard Howell; and Junius C. Morel, a militant writer and educator (fig. 26). All had close ties to the black convention movement since 1830, when forty free black leaders gathered in the city to form the American Society of Free Persons of Colour. (Morel and Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, wrote and signed the manifesto that called for the first official convention in 1831 and promoted immigrating to Canada rather than Liberia.) Historian Julie Winch noted that Hinton, the Howells, and the Gardiners were all related by marriage. Hinton, a “tireless crusader for abolition” who promoted the radical journal The Rights of All, was also an agent for the Liberator. He was involved in multiple activist causes including the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons. He pressed for the restoration of free black suffrage after Pennsylvania took it away in 1838, and he was active in the American Moral Reform Society. Junius Morel, the son of a white slave owner, wrote for and raised funds for abolitionist newspapers and fought African colonization, likening Liberia to “Golgotha” and “a kind of Botany Bay for the United States.” After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, he grew even more radical and encouraged African Americans to “defend themselves with force if force was used against them.” Morel’s closest friend was the first black graduate of Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, the Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, publisher and editor of the Colored American, an early New York–based black weekly (fig. 27). Ray was a founding member of the New York City Vigilance Committee.
The convention of 1835 and subsequent antislavery meetings were widely covered in the abolitionist press and closely followed by educated African Americans. Free black elites were a small but extremely well-connected group. If they did not know one another personally, they certainly knew about each other. According to historian Winch, sail maker James Forten, one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest and most influential black abolitionists, “received a constant stream of guests and callers . . . dozens of visitors from all over the United States and Britain, referred . . . by his network of acquaintances.” Such northern networks overlapped whenever possible with others in the South, where many slaves were clearly cognizant of free blacks and whites who might offer assistance with their flight or resettlement. When Harriet Jacobs fled from Edenton, North Carolina, to Philadelphia in 1842, a member of that city’s Vigilance Committee spotted her and took her to a safe house. “She had come to Philadelphia with the names of black folks from Chowan County who had settled in the city and with the knowledge repeatedly condemned by the Edenton Gazette, that the poor slave had many friends in the North.” Evidently, so did Thomas Day.
While Day was in Philadelphia, white North Carolinians convened a state constitutional convention in Raleigh, where voting rights took center stage. In the end, the right to vote was extended to white men who did not own property and taken away from free black men, including property holders like Thomas Day. The vote was close—sixty-six “yeas” and sixty-one “nays”—with Caswell County’s two representatives voting for disenfranchisement and Day’s future benefactor, then Governor Swain, voting to retain free black suffrage. On July 4, the Liberator published a letter that had appeared earlier in the Fayetteville Observer, noting that the state’s two wealthiest free black slave owners, Louis Sheridan and John Carruthers Stanly, had been in a unique and powerful position to protest the loss of their right to vote. The letter stated, “free Negroes such as . . . Sheridan . . . and . . . Stanly . . . should have plead trumpet-tongued in behalf of the more respectable portion of this degraded class.” But there is no evidence that either of them—or Thomas Day—uttered a word of protest. Taking an overt political stand would have been useless and self-destructive.
As affluent, mixed-race North Carolina businessmen and slave owners, Sheridan and Stanly shared many similarities with Day, especially survival strategies used to deflect criticism and circumvent the shoals of racism in the state. Of the three, Stanly was the wealthiest and owned more slaves than any other free black man in the South. Born into slavery in New Bern in 1774, he was of Day’s parents’ generation, the son of a white merchant with extensive shipping interests and an enslaved African. Privately tutored and highly literate, Stanly was a barber. Like Day, he was extremely concerned about his public image. Emancipated at the age of twenty-one, unsatisfied that his “free papers” constituted sufficient certification of his legal status, he successfully petitioned the General Assembly in 1798 to “confirm, establish, and Secure [your] petitioner his Freedom with the rights and privileges attendant thereon.” As Day would later do with his petition on behalf of Aquilla, Stanly used this request both as a means to reinforce the legitimacy of his freedom and as a tool to publicize himself.
A member of the Presbyterian Church in New Bern, he sat in the sanctuary with the white congregation—as did Day in Milton—instead of in the upstairs gallery reserved for other persons of color. Stanly also had numerous business dealings with leading whites, the most important of whom was his half brother, a congressman and banker. Even though his prominent kinsman was a known highflyer and speculator, Stanly cosigned a bank note for him. Saddled with debt when the loan came due, Stanly was forced to mortgage many of his properties, which was the beginning of a downward financial spiral from which he never recovered. At the height of his success, he owned four plantations—a total of 2,600 acres—exclusive of his city holdings and more than 150 slaves. Stanly has often been considered a banner example of exploitative free black slave ownership whose views meshed inextricably with those of white New Bern. At the time of his death circa 1846, “few of his white neighbors considered him much different from themselves in the feeling that the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ was the capstone of a unique and advanced civilization.” According to one neighbor, “J. C. Stanly was a man of dignified presence, and lived in fashionable style, his sons and daughters being well educated and always making a good appearance as bright mulattoes. No citizen of Newbern would hesitate to walk the streets with him. He was uniformly courteous and unobtrusive.”
Had Stanly’s white associates looked beyond appearances, they might have detected ways that he and his family were different from them. While Stanly has been described as a “hard task-master . . . who fed and clothed [his slaves] indifferently,” he was also directly involved in obtaining the freedom of nearly thirty slaves. Franklin described him as the “most influential free Negro in the manumission movement.”
Louis Sheridan, who was born circa 1788, was another notable free African American businessman and slave owner who was later chastised for failing to stand up to the loss of free black suffrage. Born in Elizabethtown, he was also the offspring of a white man and an enslaved woman. After gaining his freedom, he prospered as the owner of a dry goods store, became a major real estate investor, and purchased numerous properties in town and in surrounding Bladen County. Like Day and Stanly, Sheridan built a large network of social and business relationships with whites in high places and appeared to accept the norms of white supremacy by owning slaves. His immediate circle included former governor John Owen, an Elizabethtown native who had openly opposed the loss of suffrage for free blacks. There were, however, cracks in Sheridan’s mask of accommodation, and in time they deepened. In 1828 his name appears as an authorized agent for the nation’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. Though he later denied it, he also appears to have served as agent for that paper’s radical successor, The Rights of All, disassociating himself from the publication after the Cape Fear Recorder denounced him for supporting it. In a letter to the editor, he disclaimed “all connection” with northern political elements and exploited his impeccable reputation to ingratiate and distance himself:
I will appeal to my general conduct in society and to all who know me of every class in the community and challenge one and all to produce any evidence of a solitary instance in which I have by word or deed hinted at or countenanced such mischievous effects as are attributed to the “Rights of All” and to other papers or pamphlets published in the Northern States.
The letter appeased Sheridan’s critics, but his words and actions over the next few years suggest that he shared sentiments articulated in northern antislavery publications, including The Rights for All. In the end, he freed his slaves and sailed for Liberia. In August 1838, eight months after his departure, the Colored American quoted from a letter he had written to New York City businessman and abolitionist Lewis Tappan (fig. 28), citing his growing desperation at the overt racism he was experiencing:
Our cast being that in which the smallest degree of interest is conceived, nothing possible to be done is left unattempted to degrade and bring us down below the standing of their very slaves and the consequence is that under the now existing state of things, we the free people of color are denuded of all privileges marking the attributes of a man.
Originally Sheridan considered Liberian colonization the greatest “humbug ever palmed off on the American people,” but after being disenfranchised, he thought it only a matter of time before blacks would be banished from the United States. On December 30, 1837, he emigrated with his immediate family and more than fifty of his former slaves. The expatriation proved disastrous. He lost family members to disease, and by the time of his own death in 1844, he had become persona non grata in Liberia because of his public condemnation of government corruption there.
Like Day, Stanly and Sheridan exemplify the complexities and seeming contradictions of free black identity in a time and place where whites held all the cards. For all their grand visions and bold initiatives, the success of these two men was ultimately measured in the terms of property they amassed, especially human chattel. Yet, even after he emancipated sixteen slaves in order to go to Liberia, Sheridan felt that he was still not “freed from the tyranny of the white man even on African soil.” For generations, many mainstream historians stressed that most free people of color who possessed slaves did so to conform to white planter values and to participate in the profits of the “peculiar institution” often in imitation of their own white forebears. Growing evidence, however, suggests that some free blacks “owned” slaves in order to protect and or free them. Stanly and Sheridan’s motives for slave-holding appear to be equally mixed: exploitative, in that forced labor clearly gave them the economic advantage they sought; self-protective, in that slave ownership elevated them in the esteem of their white neighbors; and benevolent, especially when it came to purchasing relatives and close acquaintances. Nowhere is this divide more evident than in Stanly’s case. By all accounts, he thought nothing of breaking up families of slaves who worked his fields, but he felt quite differently about the enslaved relatives he diligently fought to manumit. His 1802 petition to free two of his sons whom he had purchased from white owners illustrates the remarkably stark difference in his feelings toward the latter. “It is inconsistent with nature,” he wrote to the members of the North Carolina General Assembly, “for the parent to wish his child in a state of vassalage, either to another or himself.”
With the newer understanding of Day’s ties to abolitionist events, schools, and ideational leaders, questions emerge about exactly how he might have interacted with or supported his own slaves. Aside from extolling their good character to Mary Ann, all that is known from the written record is that he and his wife hosted a church session meeting at their home when their “servant,” Cory, joined the Presbyterian congregation, and that Day trusted two slaves, Samuel and David, to handle money. Oral history in the Milton area continues to circulate stories of Day’s hiding fugitive slaves in his basement and smuggling them out in furniture and caskets. Some descendants of Thomas Day and of other free black families in North Carolina also mention hearing that Thomas Day was protecting and assisting slaves. Existing documents, including one of Day’s letters to his daughter, suggest that this hypothesis merits further investigation.
Historian Peter Wood presented a possible scenario for the true nature of Day’s cabinetmaking operation. When asked, “How might a southern-born free black also be an abolitionist?” Wood responded, “We don’t know for sure but we suspect” that Day’s shop “could have been a far South station of the Underground Railroad.” Day “could have treated his slaves hard or he could have been playing within the system and protecting them. He goes with the law but doesn’t resist it in overt ways.” Considering the circumstances, “it makes sense that he is not taking a Nat Turner role. Instead, he could have told his slaves ‘I am the boss. I’m going to help you learn a trade. You can’t get out of here immediately on your own, but here you’ll get better treatment than you’d get at the tobacco plantation down the road.’ . . . So someone could work for Day and later perhaps move on to the North and have a skill and be out from under slavery.” Certainly Day’s shop was capable of offering considerable artisanal training to white and African American workers alike.
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. The 1842 narrative of Lunsford Lane, who had purchased his own freedom with funds earned while still an enslaved entrepreneur in Raleigh, describes a more common mode of comportment:
I had endeavored . . . not to become obnoxious to the white inhabitants knowing as I did, their power and their hostility to the colored people. . . . First I had made no display of the little property or money I possessed but in every way I wore as much as possible the aspect of poverty. Second, I had never appeared to be even so intelligent as I really was. This all colored at the south, free and slaves, find is necessary for their own comfort and safety to observe.
Day (who was a good bit wealthier, and whiter, than Lane) did not feel compelled to hide his success, intelligence, or confidence in his abilities. When advised that he had been selected to make shelves for the debating society libraries in Chapel Hill, he wrote President Swain and asked him to “measure the length of your Books and the Depth of the shelves accurately.” In a similar vein, Day occasionally disagreed with white patrons over matters of taste. He countered a proposal to furnish the university’s debating halls with chairs by proposing high-backed benches, which he considered more practical: “anything you please . . . rather than chairs tumbling about the rising floors.” He subsequently stated that the “common” red damask selected for upholstering the benches would look “too cheap” and persuaded the debating societies’ representatives to approve an expensive corded “figured damask,” which would be “more durable & a great deal handsomer.” Although it is now clear that Day withheld some of his criticisms, the mere fact that he was willing to vigorously disagree with his white patrons is significant. As historian Loren Schweninger notes, “even the most prosperous mulattoes were constantly reminded that the slightest miscalculation, the most innocent breaching of social etiquette, an ill chosen word, could result in a violent confrontation.”
There are several reasons that perhaps explain why Thomas Day was able to sidestep the normal behavioral expectations of people of color. Affluent whites in the Carolina piedmont were anxious to acquire his work, and some of his property acquisitions may have been seen as beneficial to the Milton community. The fact that the Union Tavern came on the market in 1848 suggests that it needed to be repurposed to be productive. The consistently rising level of production of Day’s shop and the elevated social standing of his clientele indicate that his business skills and political acumen were exceptional. His light skin color—he was described in censuses as a “mulatto”—also likely contributed to the level of acceptance he had among whites. Milton locals reportedly described him as a “straight-haired West Indian” married to a “Portuguese” woman, intimating that neither he nor his wife was dark-skinned. Day’s level of education also gave him a demonstrable advantage in his interactions with the citizens of Milton, the majority of whom were less educated than Day.
By the 1840s meaningful educational opportunities for free people of color in North Carolina were virtually nonexistent. A proposal “prohibiting a free Negro from teaching his own children or causing them to be educated” was introduced at the 1834–1835 session of the General Assembl—just five months before Day’s trip to the Philadelphia convention. The measure failed to pass, but the handwriting was on the wall. In 1844 the state excluded all people of color from its “common” or public schools. Although there was no statute against teaching free blacks privately, “public opinion refused to countenance any such procedure.” In 1850 only 217 free blacks in North Carolina “were receiving some form of education.” According to one study, private schools for blacks in the upper South were “inferior,” which led some parents of means to send their children to “John Francis Cook’s Union Seminary School in the District of Columbia where the curriculum included reading, composition, recitation, sculpture, physiology and health.”
Day sent his children to Wesleyan Academy (fig. 29), which was more than six hundred miles from Milton. The head of the Massachusetts school was the Reverend Miner Raymond, a noted Methodist cleric whom a contemporary described as a “flaming abolitionist.” Day could have learned about the school from any number of sources, including contacts within the convention movement, but a likely source was John Cook, who corresponded with Day and had abolitionist connections all over the country. Day could also have heard about Wesleyan from his minister, whose sister, Sophia Harding Snow, lived in Boston, which was home to many Wesleyan students. The school offered a broad and advanced curriculum that was heavy on mathematics, science, and languages. The academy’s “Teacher’s Department” could also have been an enticement, especially for Mary Ann, who, in fact, became a teacher. According to its 1849–1850 catalogue, the school launched a new course to future educators to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and spelling the semester that Mary Ann arrived. It is also possible that Day learned about Wesleyan while attending an abolitionist convention. Berlin has asserted that Day’s participation in such gatherings, “together with his connection with the abolitionist school in Massachusetts, reveals another side of him.” This “secret life” included “ties with important elements of the activist black community engaged in self-help, racial uplift and anti-slavery projects.”
Five years after the Philadelphia convention, a man identified as “Thomas Day Jr.” appears on the attendance roster of a similar, but larger, gathering in New York City: the Seventh Annual Meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which convened at the Fourth Free (Presbyterian) Church just off Chatham Square (fig. 30). This individual is listed with the New York City delegation. No Thomas Day Jr. is noted in the city directory for that year or in the 1840 census, and no other American Thomas Day can be identified who was associated with the antislavery movement. Thomas Day of Milton had business contacts and friends in New York City, so his inclusion in the New York delegation is plausible. By 1840 he had worked with an old-guard hardware firm, W. N. Seymour & Co., for at least five years as well as with a commission agent named James Hunter. As for the suffix “Jr.,” a disclaimer on the roster admits to errors “in the orthography of names and towns” due to the “hurry and confusion of such a large assembly,” so it is possible that the “Jr.” was a transcription mistake for “Sr.,” that “NC” was misread as “NY,” or that the name “Thomas Day” is partly or wholly in error. Another possibility is that he was put into a northern delegation to disguise his southern roots, or simply because no southern delegations were listed. Given the Milton cabinetmaker’s social standing and political sentiments, as well as his previous attendance at the Philadelphia convention, it is likely that he was the man listed on the New York roster.
If Thomas Day of Milton attended the Seventh Annual Meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, he could have met the delegation from Wilbraham, Massachusetts, which included several prominent men associated with Wesleyan. By that date, the racially integrated American Anti-Slavery Society had 250,000 members and hundreds of auxiliaries, and, as was the case with previous conventions, it disseminated names of schools that welcomed black students. Many other delegates at the New York convention were also familiar with egalitarian institutions like Wesleyan. The Reverend Jehiel Beman of Boston, the recently appointed director of the Massachusetts Abolition Society’s Agency in Behalf of the Free People of Color, was the point man for aiding “people of color in . . . obtaining the advantages of education for their children.” Charles B. Ray of New York was an alumnus of Wesleyan, Abel Bliss was a founder of the academy, and Frederick Merrick would later become the president of Wesleyan College. John W. Dadman was a member of the academy’s Examining Committee for New England students, and William Rice, who had once distributed antislavery notices on campus, was valedictorian of the class of 1840. Wesleyan Academy advertised widely in mainstream newspapers in New York and throughout New England, in abolitionist broadsheets including the Liberator and the Colored American, and in the Methodist Episcopal weekly, Zion’s Herald, whose Boston publisher, Jacob Sleeper, was a prominent Wesleyan trustee. Ray’s broadsheet, the Colored American, reported that “thousands” had attended.
The Day children were still babies when Thomas went to Philadelphia in 1835, but his presence at that convention suggests that he was very concerned about their future. Racial uplift through education was at the top of that convention’s agenda, and the Committee on High Schools had identified a handful of northern institutions known to accept black youth “on an equal footing with whites.” The list included the Oneida Institute in Whitesville, New York; Mount Pleasant Academy in Amherst, Massachusetts; McGrawville College in McGrawville, New York (later New York Central College); and Canaan (later Kimball Academy), in Meriden, New Hampshire. By the time Day’s children were ready to attend high school, the list had expanded to include such coeducational options as Wesleyan, H. H. Kellogg’s Domestic Seminary and Clinton Grammar School, in Clinton, New York (which Devereux possibly attended before he went to Wesleyan); Oberlin, in Ohio, originally the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, which opened its doors to whites, blacks, males, and females in 1833; and Comer’s Commercial College, established in Boston in 1840. Highly regarded all-black schools included the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth, chartered in 1827, and Avery College in Pittsburgh, founded in 1849 to train young men as ministers and teachers. With John Cook as a personal guide, Day would have had contacts at several of these schools.
According to Wesleyan’s catalogues, Mary Ann and Thomas were there from 1849 through 1852. Devereux, whose name does not appear in the catalogue of 1849–1850, did not join them until their second year. A postscript on an undated letter from the elder Thomas to Mary Ann at Wesleyan shows how close a friend he was to the ardent abolition leaders of Wesleyan: “Give my love to Mr. R and Mr. M and tell them within five days, I will send them the money due the Seminary.” Since Day had mentioned both men by their full names in the body of the letter, it is clear that “Mr. R” refers to Miner Raymond, principal of the academy, and “Mr. M” to John Merrick, the treasurer of the school’s board.
Founded by Methodists in 1817, Wesleyan had been a bastion of abolitionist sentiment since the early 1830s. “Trustees, teachers and students” had been swept away by “the new impulse.” A contemporaneous history of the school notes that the student leader in the movement was William Rice, and that the chapel was an active Underground Railroad station. During the time period when the Day children were at Wesleyan, the entire community was even more radical, a fact that would not have eluded Thomas and Aquilla Day. The arrival of their children in Massachusetts coincided with the vitriolic debates consuming Congress and culminating in the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act on September 18, 1850. The floor of the Capitol had become a battleground, where one Mississippi senator threatened to lynch an abolitionist senator from New Hampshire should he “go ten miles into the interior of the . . . good state” of Mississippi. The law and the related Compromise of 1850, which extended slavery to the western territories, gave slave hunters authority in all states and required the cooperation of local officials. Federal marshals and even bystanders who refused to participate in apprehending fugitives were subject to a $1,000 fine. Free blacks without proper documentation were also targeted, kidnapped, and sold into slavery, particularly when the price for cotton in the South was high and labor was in greater demand. Considering the noxious political climate, Thomas Day was incredibly brave to escort his children from Milton to Wilbraham and back. A poster dated April 24, 1851, warned “all” people of color in Boston, eighty miles east of Wilbraham, about policemen acting as slave catchers (fig. 31).
The Milton community apparently turned a blind eye when Day broke North Carolina law and traveled beyond Caswell County without the requisite license and when his children stayed out of state longer than the ninety-day limit, but in communities where free blacks had high standing, officials often looked the other way. Moreover, there were so many statutes on the books ostensibly “controlling” free black activity that there was no way that the myriad laws could be consistently enforced with the limited number of officials available. Yet any law could be enforced at any time, which created a sense of threat and even terror. An 1838 Virginia law prohibiting “a Free Negro who left the state to study” from ever returning underscores the risk that parents took by sending their children away to school. Just across the border in North Carolina, Thomas and Aquilla understood that secrecy was their best protection.
With the Fugitive Slave Law in effect, it is unlikely that Day would have ventured beyond familiar territory without a testimonial letter from a known authority. When Louis Sheridan traveled from Bladen County to New York City in 1834, he carried a letter of introduction from John Owen, a former North Carolina governor. Ten years later, Boston minister Jehiel C. Beman had to present a letter signed by the governor of Massachusetts to gain passage on a train from Baltimore to Washington, but he was still required to sit in “the Jimmy,” the sooty Jim Crow car. Day also would have needed letters of introduction to open accounts in cities where he conducted business, including Petersburg, Virginia, Baltimore, and New York. Given his standing in North Carolina, he could have obtained references from any number of prominent clients and neighbors.
Day was undoubtedly attuned to the growing hostility toward all people of color in the South. Evidence of the latter is seen in two particularly odious bills that were introduced, albeit unsuccessfully, in the North Carolina legislature in late 1850. One called for shipping all 345 free black residents of Duplin County to Liberia. Those who preferred to remain would be “sold and become slaves.” The other bill would have compelled “all the free Negroes of North Carolina to emigrate to the Abolition and Free Soil States,” the assumption being that resident abolitionists in those states would feel less kindly toward their new neighbors when confronted by such a large dose of “black medicine.” The poisonous words of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun were also widely reported:
It is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty. . . . It is a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving—and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or enjoying it.
Day’s white neighbors and clients typically addressed him as “Mr. Day” instead of “Tom,” and some sat side by side with his family in the church next to his shop, but few, if any, of those people would have considered him a social equal. In November 1851 Day cautioned Mary Ann to “expect cool Comfort as far as human intercourse is concerned” when she returns from school, citing the “frail . . . affection of Friends.” He understood that the realities of life in Milton were at odds with his daughter’s experiences at Wesleyan. In the same letter, he expressed contempt for the daughters of some white neighbors “who learn a little of one thing” and “a little of another . . . [and] return to their country homes knowing nothing but . . . scoff at persons they think inferior to themselves.” In an especially pointed dig at the local gentry, he added that the behavior of “such children they raise here are Just a such as could be Expected from such parents.” Day could never have said this publicly, yet in an undated letter to Mary Ann, then a student at Wesleyan, his sense of isolation is palpable:
No doubt my great concern at this time & will be is to get some suitable place for you and your Brothers—all of us—to settle down—I want you to be in some place where your turn of feelings & manners can be well met with associates—& I fully Expect to affect my purpose if I live long enough.
Poignantly, Day added, “There is nothing here but to make a little money & that but little to induce us to stay here.” Despite his wishes for his children, it appears that he was resigned to his fate in Milton, perhaps believing that by this late date he already had stayed too long. He appears to have expressed similar sentiments to his brother in Liberia. In a letter published by the Colonization Society, John Day wrote, “My brother in America has asked me ‘how it is that colored men in America are so insignificant and here so great?’” Despite his own individual success, the abolitionist inclinations in Thomas Day allowed him to think more broadly about the perverse implications of slavery and racial inequity in America. Still, he and his peers continued to be constrained in their ability to openly state their beliefs.
Accounts of former Underground Railroad operatives reveal that most were extremely careful to be discreet and destroy their records after the Fugitive Slave Law went into effect. Thomas Day’s old friend John Cook, having been victimized by racially motivated mob violence, knew better than to reveal his true thoughts even in his diary. At first glance, Cook’s diary appears to be a sober account of mundane daily activities, interspersed with vague references to correspondence “rc’d.” or letters written “in response.” He did not record that his good friends J. B. Vashon of Pittsburgh, Dr. J. J. Gould Bias of Philadelphia, and the Reverend Leonard Grimes of Boston were major Underground Railroad operatives, that Joshua Leavitt of New York was the editor of the Emancipator, or that Lewis Tappan, who visited his Sunday school on March 3, 1850, was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and enlisted thousands of members to bombard Congress with abolitionist pamphlets.
Cook’s entry on the occasion of the Days’ visit to Washington suggests that he knew them well: “Mr. Day arrived from Milton, N.C. Mr. Day, Daughter [whom Cook later identifies as “Mary”] & son, Thomas all called, set & took tea with me until 9, then went with him to Mrs. Tanner” (fig. 32). The next morning, Cook “breakfasted’’ with Thomas Jr. and took him to see his infant son, who was being cared for by a friend. In the year and three months that he kept his diary, no one but Thomas Day stayed overnight with Cook’s beloved aunt and benefactor Alethia Tanner, and Thomas Jr. is the only nonfamily member Cook took to see “the baby.” Seven years later, Thomas Jr. married Mary Virginia Washington, the eldest daughter of Cook’s close friend and neighbor Mary Washington. Thomas and his first wife, who went by the name Virginia, had three children before her death in North Carolina in 1867. Four years later, Thomas Jr. returned to Washington to marry her younger sister, Annie.
William Robinson later confirmed Cook’s close ties to the Days. In 1927 he wrote Carter Woodson, known today as the Father of Black History, to “find George M. Cook to see if he knew of a Thomas Day [Jr.] of Milton, N. C. who married a Miss Annie Washington, first principal of Stephen’s [sic] school” (fig. 33). Robinson would have learned of Cook’s direct involvement with his family from his mother, Annie Day Shepard (fig. 34), the younger daughter of Thomas Day Jr. and Virginia. After Virginia’s death, young Annie and her sister Minnie were sent to the District of Columbia to live with their aunt, Annie Washington, and to attend her school. This raises the question of how George M. Cook, born in 1860, came to know about Thomas Day’s children. George, who was John F. Cook’s nephew, was Annie Washington’s student at Stevens when she married Thomas Day Jr. As one of the few surviving members of the Cook family who would have known them both personally, he might also have known if Annie and Mary Ann were educated together and whether Cook’s school, where Annie Washington was once a student, was the one that Mary Ann attended in the North before she and her brothers went to Wesleyan. Since the records of Cook’s Union Seminary are no longer extant and only one diary maintained by John Cook is known to survive, we may never know for certain; however, one has to wonder how Thomas Jr. came to join this abolitionist minister and teacher’s inner circle. If Thomas Day Jr. was educated in Washington as well, that could explain why the Milton “old timers” told Caroline Pell Gunter in the 1920s that Thomas Sr. attended schools in those cities; they simply confused father and son. Thomas Jr.’s subsequent marriages to Cook’s neighbors, the Washington sisters, explain the close association of his generation with the free black community of Washington, further buttressing this theory.
In 1840 Thomas Day’s net worth was $40,000. Although the following decade was his most productive period (figs. 35, 36), 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 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.
An article in the April 15, 1865, issue of the Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, noted that Thomas Day Jr. was in Wilmington, North Carolina (fig. 37). That date would have resonated in his memory as the day Abraham Lincoln died, scarcely a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The same article reported that a “Miss Day” [Mary Ann] had been teaching in Wilmington’s “underground” schools. A skilled cabinetmaker in his own right, Thomas borrowed money from some of his father’s white business creditors to save the Union Tavern and likely occupied his father’s old home and workshop until January 1864, when he finally paid off the debt. His mother transferred her membership from the Milton church to the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington the following October. This suggests that the family was already living in the latter town. The Christian Recorder described the politics of the vibrant free black community that embraced the Days as kindred spirits:
The people [in Wilmington] are generally refined and well informed . . . Union to the bone, liberal and modest. Almost or I may say all of the colored people have been engaged in the business of hiding Yankee prisoners. Almost every house in the city occupied by colored people has done this favor for our prisoners.
As the Confederacy was disintegrating, Thomas Day’s long-hidden political sympathies were emerging, albeit in the values and examples passed down to his children. Mary Ann was working to improve the lives of African Americans in Wilmington even before Union forces occupied the city on February 22, 1865. She had helped establish an “underground” school for African American children at a time when teaching them was still forbidden. The March 11, 1865, issue of the Christian Recorder reported that she, three other teachers, and nearly seven hundred recently emancipated children assembled in the basement of the city’s largest Methodist Church on Front Street to meet Union leaders as well as representatives from the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association. The American Missionary Association was one of several benevolent societies that funded schools throughout the South. A later edition of the same newspaper reported that Mary Ann’s future husband, the Reverend James A. Chresfield, was also in town, running a school in the very church to which Aquilla Day transferred her membership.
Wilmington’s leading black citizens, including Thomas, were characterized as individuals “who have friends and relatives in the North.” They were also a close-knit, politically active group. Two “underground” teachers who assisted Mary Ann in her work were daughters of Wilmington’s wealthiest free black resident, James D. Sampson. (The newspaper had identified them as the “Misses Day [singular] and Sampsons.”) Sampson (d. 1861) was a cabinetmaker and builder who owned numerous slaves and educated his children in the North. Initially, they were tutored at home alongside his slaves, a transgression for which he barely escaped being tarred and feathered. One Sampson son, John Patterson Sampson, founded an antislavery newspaper in Cincinnati, the Colored Citizen, later known as the National Negro War. It was circulated to thousands of black soldiers during the Civil War, and, because of this, John Patterson Sampson achieved national fame as a journalist and abolitionist.
A subsequent letter from Mary Ann to the American Missionary Association described the children she was teaching. She reported that they were so poor they could not afford books, and she elected to pay for the texts by having the cost “deducted” from her salary. Her involvement in establishing one of the first schools in Wilmington for formerly enslaved children further suggests that Thomas and Aquilla Day selected Wesleyan because they wanted their children to be empowered by that training ground for abolitionists. Numerous graduates of the school, white as well as black, became leaders and activists. Many served as ministers and educators; some graduates and their offspring even took part in founding schools and colleges. Alumnus Charles B. Ray was a founder of the New York Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children.
After their marriage in 1867, Mary Ann and her husband, James Chresfield, moved to Lexington, North Carolina, where he established a church and school. Mary Ann died three years later, but letters in the National Archives to officials at the Freedmen’s Bureau survive as a testament to her deep involvement with James’s fledgling operation. The education of African Americans was of paramount concern for other members of Thomas and Aquilla’s family, including their daughter-in-law Annie Washington Day, granddaughter Annie Day Shepard, and great-grandson William Robinson, the son of Annie Day Shepard by her first husband, Dr. D. A. Robinson. William served as director of North Carolina’s African American secondary school system, and many family members across generations played significant roles in the education of African Americans.
Unanswered questions remain about Thomas Day, the Milton furniture maker and patriarch of this impressive family. He was not an overt abolitionist like David Walker, who moved from Wilmington to Boston in the early 1820s and who publicly demanded immediate change. Nor did he become a violent insurrectionist, like Nat Turner, who, like Day, was born in Southside Virginia. But in Day’s own distinctive way, he contributed to the cause of African American equality, if only through the shining example of his own individual success. New historical evidence reveals that he had irrefutable ties to some of the most powerful abolitionists in the country, and that these ties came with enormous risk to his safety and that of his family.
Because Day’s activities beyond Milton were so well hidden, it is still impossible to document the full extent of his participation in the abolition movement. In the years to come, more documents likely will emerge and help create a more complete and more complex portrait. Day was remarkably daring to go to Philadelphia for the abolitionist convention in 1835 (and probably the meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York in 1840). In those acts alone, the depth of his commitment to equality can hardly be questioned. Equally revealing is his choice of Wesleyan Academy for his children’s education and the Day family’s ties to that school’s ardent abolitionist leaders and to John F. Cook, a major abolitionist figure in Washington, D.C. Such avowed abolitionists would not have been on close personal terms with a slave owner had he not assured them, by actions as well as words, that he was sympathetic to their cause. It is also difficult to imagine that Cook’s protégées Virginia and then Annie Washington would have married Thomas Jr. without firsthand knowledge of their father-in-law’s egalitarian social convictions. It now seems clear that by sending his children to Wesleyan, Day was preparing them to be agents of change. His daughter’s devotion to secretly teaching in Wilmington’s “underground schools” and the involvement of Day descendants in the education of African Americans testify to his legacy.
Newel post attributed to Thomas Day, Littleton Tazewell Hunt House, Milton Township, Caswell County, North Carolina, ca. 1855. (Photo, Tim Buchman.) This is one of twenty-five distinctive S-shaped newels attributed to Day.
Presbyterian Church, Milton, North Carolina, ca. 1837. (Photo, Jerome Bias.)
Detail of the interior of the Presbyterian Church, showing pews made by Thomas Day, Milton, North Carolina, ca. 1837. Walnut with tulip poplar. (Photos, Jerome Bias.) Day joined the church in 1841 but likely made the pews earlier. Rev. Nehemiah Henry Harding served as pastor from 1835 to 1849.
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. The tavern was a major stagecoach stop on the route to Petersburg, Virginia.
Newel post attributed to Thomas Day, Woodside, Milton, North Carolina, ca. 1838. (Courtesy, Historic Woodside House; photo, Tim Buchman.) Woodside was built by planter and foundry owner Caleb Hazard Richmond. The house is noted for having interior architectural details fabricated by Thomas Day and for being the site where Confederate general Dodson Ramseur married Richmond’s daughter Mary.
Detail of a newel post attributed to Thomas Day, William Long House, Blanch Community near Milton, North Carolina, ca. 1856. (Photo, Tim Buchman.) This design may have been inspired by Day’s initials.
Detail of a scrolled mirror support on a sideboard attributed to Thomas Day, Milton, North Carolina, 1840–1855. Mahogany and mahogany veneer with yellow pine, tulip poplar, and walnut. (Collection of the North Carolina Museum of History, donation Museum of History Associates and Mr. Thomas S. Erwin; courtesy, Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; photo, Amy Vaughters.) The sideboard was made for Caleb H. Richmond.
Lounge attributed to Thomas Day, Milton, North Carolina, 1845–1855. Walnut with yellow pine. H. 27 3/8", W. 88 9/16", D. 23 7/16". (Collection of the North Carolina Museum of History, purchase with state funds; photo, North Carolina Museum of History.) Day made twelve documented settees that he referred to as “lounges.” This example descended in the Bass-Engle family.
Sofa attributed to Karsten Petersen, Salem, North Carolina, 1830–1850. Cherry with tulip poplar. H. 25", W. 72", D. 23 1/2". (Courtesy, Old Salem Museum & Gardens.)
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.)
“A Card,” Liberator, August 8, 1835, p. 127. (Facsimile.)
Liberator, January 1, 1831. (Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.) The front page of the first edition features William Lloyd Garrison’s famous “Open Letter to the Public,” in which he stated, “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch and I WILL BE HEARD.”
Photograph of William Lloyd Garrison. 3 1/4" x 3". (Courtesy, Prints of American Abolitionists Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.) An uncompromising moralist, Garrison was editor and publisher of the Liberator for more than thirty years and a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Jeremiah Paul, Manumission of Dinah Nevill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ca. 1795. Oil on canvas. 50" x 39". (Private collection; photo, Gavin Ashworth.) This emotionally charged picture depicts Quaker tailor Thomas Harrison purchasing the freedom of “mulatto” slave Dinah Nevill from Benjamin Bannerman, Virginia planter. In 1773 Bannerman bought Nevill and her three children from Nathaniel Lowry of New Jersey and arranged for the family to be transported to Philadelphia. On their arrival in the city, Nevill made a public plea claiming that she and her children were free people. A group of Quakers filed suit to void Bannerman’s claims, but the court ruled in the latter’s favor. This decision and similar cases involving African Americans led to the formation of the Society for the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Kept in Bondage, which would eventually become the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Thomas Harrison (1741–1815), who was a founding member of that society, continued the effort to free Nevill and her children, and on May 18, 1779, he manumitted them with money provided by Quaker brewer Samuel Moore.
Inscription in Thomas Day’s Bible written by his pastor, Nehemiah Henry Harding. (Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Baker Day; photo, courtesy, North Carolina Museum of History.)
The Reverend Nehemiah Henry Harding. (Courtesy, Presbyterian Heritage Center, Montreat, North Carolina.)
Frontispiece, Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, 1839. (Courtesy, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.) This publication is a documentary account of slavery in all its brutality through firsthand testimonials and recollections of former slaves as well as white witnesses. It was distributed widely and is considered one of the most influential antislavery tracts. The Reverend Nehemiah Henry Harding, pastor of the Milton Presbyterian Church and friend of Thomas Day, is represented in the book with a quotation in which he condemns the immorality of slavery as an institution.
Isham E. Hargrave, “Correct Map of Dinwiddie County, Virginia containing 317,200 acres,” ca. 1820. (Courtesy, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.) This map shows the “mansion house” of Thomas Day’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Thomas Stewart, on present-day Old White Oak Road. Hargrave was the county’s deputy surveyor.
Jehudi Ashmun, “Map of the West Coast of Africa from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas, including the Colony of Liberia,” printed by A. Finley, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1830. (Courtesy, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.) Thomas Day’s brother John Day Jr. sailed for Liberia the same year this map was printed. John lived in Monrovia, which is depicted on this map, before embarking on his career as a missionary.
Advertisement for Thomas Day’s shop, Milton Gazette & Roanoke Advertiser, March 1, 1827. (Courtesy, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.)
“Whatnot,” or étagére, attributed to Thomas Day, Milton, North Carolina, 1853–1860. Mahogany and mahogany veneer with yellow pine, tulip poplar, and walnut. H. 69 3/4", W. 40", D. 16". (Private collection; courtesy, Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; photo, Tim Buchman.) Day made this étagére for Milton merchant John Wilson.
Thomas Day, lady’s open pillar bureau, Milton, North Carolina, 1855. Mahogany and mahogany veneer with yellow pine and tulip poplar. H. 85", W. 42 1/8", D. 20 7/8". (Collection of the North Carolina Museum of History, purchase funds provided by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.; Photo, North Carolina Museum of History.) Day made this bureau for former North Carolina governor David S. Reid, who lived in Rockingham County.
Thomas Sully, Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1808–1876), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1844. Oil on canvas. 33 7/8" x 29 3/8". (Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection; courtesy, Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.) Roberts, a Petersburg, Virginia, merchant, was the first president of Liberia and one of the twenty-one men who lodged in Mrs. Gardiner’s Philadelphia boardinghouse during the black abolitionist convention of 1835.
William Whipper, attributed to William Matthew Prior, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1835. Oil on canvas. 24 3/4" x 20 1/8". (Courtesy, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, gift of Steven C. Clark; photo, Richard Walker.) Whipper was a wealthy Pennsylvania lumber and coal merchant and a founder of the American Moral Reform Society. He delivered the keynote address at the 1835 convention in Philadelphia and signed the “Card,” which places him in the city and the boardinghouse with Thomas Day and John Francis Cook. When a white mob tried to destroy Cook’s school in Washington two months after the convention, he fled to Whipper’s hometown, Columbia, Pennsylvania.
The Reverend John Francis Cook, shown in a copy of a newspaper photograph presented to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University in Washington, D.C. by Cook’s descendants. (Courtesy, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.)
Edward Williams Clay, “Philadelphia Fashions, 1837,” printed and published by H. R. Robinson, New York City, ca. 1837. Lithograph. 18 1/2" x 12 3/4". (Courtesy, The Library Company of Philadelphia.) This image is one of a series of racist cartoons that satirized the dress and manners of Philadelphia’s most affluent African Americans. The male figure is believed to be the well-known barber and social activist Frederick Augustus Hinton and the female, his second wife, Eliza Willson. African American stereotypes such as this were pervasive in mid-nineteenth-century America and reveal that racism was accepted in the North despite the fact that free blacks had more freedoms and greater opportunities there than in the South.
Engraving depicting Charles Bennett Ray, from Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in Our History (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1922), p. 146. Ray was a businessman, preacher, and operative with the Underground Railroad. He also served as an agent and later as publisher and editor of the influential black abolitionist newspaper the Colored American, which encouraged the moral, social, and political improvement of African Americans and endorsed a peaceful end to slavery. A native of Falmouth, Massachusetts, he was the first black graduate of Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, the same abolitionist-led school where Thomas Day later sent his three children.
Photograph of Lewis Tappan. 9" x 6" (Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts, Prints of American Abolitionists Collection.) Tappan, a prominent New York City merchant, and his brother Arthur were among the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society and their credit-reporting firm was the precursor of Dun & Bradstreet. The diary of the Reverend John Francis Cook of Washington, D.C., reveals that Lewis Tappan was among the many prominent northern abolitionists who corresponded with and visited the minister.
Frontispiece in the Reverend David Sherman, History of the Wesleyan Academy, at Wilbraham, Mass., 1817–1890 (Boston: McDonald & Hill Co., 1893). Thomas Day sent his daughter Mary Ann and younger son, Thomas, to Wesleyan for the 1849–1850 school year. Their brother Devereux joined them there the following term. Thomas Day’s correspondence indicates that he was close to the school’s abolitionist principal, the Reverend Miner Raymond.
Fanny Palmer, “Chatham Square. New York,” for N. Currier. Lithographer, New York City, ca. 1847. Aquatint on paper. Plate, 8" x 12 1/2". (Courtesy, Museum of the City of New York, New York.) W. N. Seymour & Co., the hardware emporium where Thomas Day conducted business for many years, is the white building with the flag in the background.
Caution!! Colored People of Boston. Boston, Massachusetts, April 24, 1851. Ink on paper. 16" x 10 1/2". (Courtesy, Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books Collection.)
Detail of the Reverend John Francis Cook’s diary entries describing a visit from Thomas Day and two of his children on May 12 and May 13, 1850, box 3, Cook Family Papers, 1827–1869. (Courtesy, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.)
The Stevens School, Washington, D.C., 1870. Copy of an engraving in Annual Report of the Superintendant of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown, 1871–2 (Washington, D.C.: National Republican Job Office Print, 1873), frontispiece. (Courtesy, Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, D.C.) The District of Columbia’s first public schools for African American children were established in 1867, and the Stevens School, named for radical abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, was built the following year.
Photograph of Annie Day Shepard, ca. 1945. (Archives of North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina.) The granddaughter of Thomas Day, Shepard cofounded North Carolina Central in 1910 with her husband, Dr. James Shepard. She was a college-educated teacher and the namesake of her aunt/stepmother, Annie Washington Day.
Thomas Day, bedstead, Milton, North Carolina, 1853. Mahogany veneer with yellow pine and tulip poplar. H. 87 1/2", L. 82", W. 65 1/2". (Collection of the North Carolina Museum of History, purchase with state funds; photo, North Carolina Museum of History.) Day made this bedstead for Azariah Graves II of Oak Grove plantation in present-day Stony Creek Township, Caswell County, North Carolina.
Passage rack, or hall tree, attributed to Thomas Day, Milton, North Carolina, ca. 1857. Tulip poplar; mahogany graining. H. 86", W. 35", D. 23 1/2". (Courtesy, Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Dr. and Mrs. H. W. Moore as part of town renovation of the Ruffin Roulhac House as Hillsborough’s Town Hall; photo, Amy Vaughters.) The rack was made for C. H. Moseley of Caswell County, North Carolina.
“View of Wilmington with Released Prisoners Marching on Their Way to the Transports, Feb. 27, 1865,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 1, 1865. (North Carolina Civil War Image Portfolio, Prints and Photographs, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.) The focus of this image is freed Union prisoners of war, Confederate captives, and refugees. The Days were in Wilmington when this image was created.
“Attention! Colored Americans,” Emancipator (New York), May 26, 1835. The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1830–46, edited by C. Peter Ripley, Roy E. Finkenbine, Michael F. Hembree, and Donald Yacovone, 5 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 3: 146–51. The quotation appears in the convention’s keynote address announcing the formation of the American Moral Reform Society and was authored by delegates William Whipper, Alfred Niger, and Augustus Price.
Acts Passed by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina at the Session of 1830–31 (Raleigh, N.C.: Lawrence & LeMay, 1831), chap. 5, secs. 1–3, pp. 10–11.
Journal of the House of Commons of North Carolina, 1830–1831, p. 238, Office of Archives and History (hereafter OAH), Raleigh, N.C. Saunders and sixty-one white citizens of Milton used this occasion to allow Day’s wife, Aquilla Wilson Day, a Virginian, a special dispensation from an “act to prevent free persons of colour from migrating into the State” (Acts Passed by the General Assembly of North Carolina at Its Session Commencing on the 25th of December, 1826 [Raleigh, N.C.: Lawrence & Lemay, Printers to the State, 1827], chap. 21, sec. 1, p. 67
Laurel Crone Sneed and Patricia Dane Rogers, The Hidden History of Thomas Day (Research Triangle Park, N.C.: Apprend Foundation, 2009). This essay was supported by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council. “A Card,” The Liberator, July 11 and August 8, 1835. The “Card” was discovered on the Accessible Archives database (accessible.com) at the Library of Congress in 2006 in the course of researching a documentary film about Thomas Day. Cook Family Papers, 1827–1868, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C. Work on the documentary film, The Thin Edge of Freedom: Thomas Day and the Free Black Experience, 1800–1860, is still in progress. The creative director and executive producer is Laurel Sneed, director of the Apprend Foundation and director of the Thomas Day Education Project/Crafting Freedom workshops. The film was awarded an NEH Media-Maker’s grant for 2009–2010 for the development of a script. The scriptwriter is Stephen Stept, an award-winning documentary producer and writer.
Carter G. Woodson wrote about Day’s business success in The Mis-Education of the Negro (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1933), pp. 169–70. John Hope Franklin’s doctoral thesis was published as The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943). Articles by Caroline Pell Gunter, “Tom Day—Craftsman,” Antiquarian, September 1928, News & Observer, June 30, 1929, and Paul Ader, “Tom Day,” State 8, no. 5 (February 15, 1941), relied primarily on local oral histories. In “Tom Day—Craftsman,” p. 60, Gunter said Day was born between 1785 and 1787 on his parents’ farm near Milton and that his mother had mortgaged the farm to send him to school in Boston and Washington, where he studied for three years. William A. Robinson et al., “Thomas Day and His Family,” Negro History Bulletin 8 (March 1950): 122–26, 140. In a letter to Woodson dated September 16, 1927, Robinson enclosed transcribed copies of letters from Thomas Day to Mary Ann, one dated November 27, 1851, the other undated, stated that he had the originals, and offered to send “photographic copies” to Woodson for $2 per letter. Woodson’s files at the Library of Congress contain Robinson’s typed transcriptions but not images of the originals. Today, these transcriptions and two one-page fragments from each of the letters are in the archives of the late Mary Satterfield, a Milton community historian. For more on the Robinson-Woodson correspondence, see Carter Godwin Woodson Papers, 1916–1927, part 1, box 1.6, reel 3-4, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The authors thank Lewis Wyman, Reference Librarian, Manuscript Division, for this citation.
Ira Berlin, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 239–40. Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, edited by Minnie J. Smith (Raleigh, N.C.: State Department of Archives and History, 1964), 9 (1838–1847): 49; on June 28, 1847, Thomas Day requested that his sixteen-year-old daughter educated in the “North” be allowed to study music with a Salem Academy teacher. The children’s book is Mary E. Lyons, Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker (New York: Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1994). Laurel Sneed and Christine Westfall, Uncovering the Hidden History of Thomas Day: Findings and Methodology (1995; updated, Durham, N.C.: Thomas Day Education Project, 1996).
Patricia Phillip Marshall, “With All Necessary Care and Attention: The Artistry of Thomas Day,” North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, September 3, 1996–March 2, 1997. African American collector Derrick Beard was the driving force behind the exhibition “Sankofa: A Celebration of African American Arts & Crafts, 1790–1930,” which traveled to venues including the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. Craftique, Inc. launched “The Thomas Day Collection” in 1996, but the firm is no longer in business. According to Marian Thomas, former director of the Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Restoration project, Craftique, Inc. made a “generous” donation toward the restoration and contributed royalties for each piece sold. Patricia Dane Rogers, “Carved in History, Thomas Day: A Success in an Unlikely Time and Place,” Washington Post, February 13, 1997. Janie Leigh Carter, “John Day: A Founder of the Republic of Liberia and the Southern Baptist Liberian Missionary Movement in the Nineteenth Century (master’s thesis, Wake Forest University, 1998). Michael A. Paquette,”Thomas Day: An Inquiry into Business and Labor Practices in an Antebellum Cabinetshop,” Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians 6–7 (Fall 1998–99): 6–22. Jonathan Prown, “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation,” Winterthur Portfolio 33, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 215–29.
The exhibit opened in June 2010 and closed in January 2013. Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the North Carolina Museum of History, 2010). Based on the exhibition organized by the North Carolina Museum of History, the Renwick Gallery’s “Thomas Day: Master Cabinetmaker and Free Man of Color” ran from April 12 to July 28, 2013.
Patricia Phillips Marshall, “The Legendary Thomas Day: Debunking the Popular Mythology of an African American Craftsman,” in Rodney D. Barfield and Patricia M. Marshall, Thomas Day, African American Furniture Maker (Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2005), p. 50. There are variations among the stories of Day’s descendants, but most portray him as benevolent toward his slaves. Marshall notes that evolving myths regarding Day account for the seeming incongruities in his life, such as the fact that he was black yet attended a predominantly white church and owned slaves. There is no documentary evidence in church records that Day agreed to make the pews on condition that he and/or his slaves receive special seating. Juanita Holland, filmed interview by Laurel C. Sneed, 1998, Thomas Day Education Project archives (hereafter TDEP), Durham, N.C
John Hope Franklin, filmed interview by Laurel C. Sneed for Thomas Day, American, October 1995, TDEP.
David Walker’s antislavery pamphlet, Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World but in Particular and Very Expressly, to Those in the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829, David Walker. Third and Last Edition with Additional Notes, Corrections, &c. (Boston: David Walker, 1803), p. 73, stated: “America is more our country than it is the whites—we have enriched it with our blood and tears.” Acts Passed by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina at the Session of 1830–1831 (Raleigh, N.C.: Lawrence & Lemay, 1831), chap. 4, secs. 1–3, pp. 9–10 (“An act to more effectively prevent intermarriages between free negroes or free persons of colour and white persons and slaves); chap. 6, secs. 1–2, p. 11 (“An act to prevent all persons from teaching slaves to read or write, the use of numbers excepted”); chap. 7, sec. 1, p. 11 (“An act to prohibit free persons of colour from peddling . . . granted annually by the county court . . . when 7 or more justices are present”); chap. 9, sec. 1, pp. 12–13 (“An act to regulate the emancipation of slaves in this State”); chap. 8, p. 12 (“An act providing . . . punishment for harboring or maintaining runaway slaves”).
Melvin Patrick Ely, interview for the film The Thin Edge of Freedom: Thomas Day. Marshall and Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman, p. 132. The authors attribute as many as eighty architectural projects to Day.
Marshall and Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman, p. 76. August Fogle Letters, 1820–1897, Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, N.C., as quoted in Paquette, “Thomas Day: An Inquiry,” p. 7. Johanna M. Brown, Curator of Moravian Decorative Arts, Old Salem Museums & Gardens, email message to Patricia Rogers, June 6, 2013. According to Brown, four cabinetmakers from Germany (including one who was originally Danish) came to Salem and brought with them “a Teutonic interpretation of neoclassical design which later seemed to include Biedermeier influences.” She also notes, Karsten Petersen, the former Dane, trained Jacob Siewers and that there appears to have been “an exchange of design and style ideas” between Siewers, his brother, John, and Thomas Day. Decorative arts historian Sumpter Priddy III and Jerome Bias, a North Carolina cabinetmaker and Day scholar, have also observed Salem influences in Day’s work, but Bias notes that the construction of Day’s lounges does differs from the Salem versions. Richard Powell’s observation was recorded in October 1995 in a video interview for the Thomas Day Education Project archives.
Aiming to attract a “genteel” black clientele, Serena Gardiner and her husband, African Methodist Episcopal minister Peter Gardiner, a delegate to all of the previous conventions, took out twenty-three additional Liberator ads for the Elizabeth Street boardinghouse and its predecessor at 19 Powell Street.
The Fifth Census of the United States, 1830, Population Schedule of Surry, Currituck, Person and Caswell County, North Carolina; Sixth Census of the United States, 1840, Population Schedule of Carteret, Surry, Person and Caswell County, North Carolina, National Archives, Washington, D.C. These documents list five men named Thomas Day, but the convention took place five years later, eliminating anyone who moved into the state after 1830, so the Thomas Days in the 1840 census, who could have moved into the state at any time after 1830, must also be counted. The 1830 census lists three white men named Thomas Day and two free men of color with the same name. Of the three whites, two are from Surry County and the third, from Currituck County. A fourth white Thomas Day from Carteret County is enumerated in the 1840 census. The two black Thomas Days remain the same: one from Caswell County and one from neighboring Person County. Genealogist Aaron Day, who has studied his Person County relatives, described the Thomas Day living in that county as poor and illiterate, a tenant farmer and bushwhacker who cleared land for crops and roads. He signed two deeds of debt with an “X,” indicating illiteracy (Person County Deed Book G, January 6, 1824, pp. 100–101; Deed Book L, August 1, 1835, p. 374, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, State Archives, Raleigh, N.C.).
Black Abolitionist Papers, 1830–1865: A Guide to the Microfilm Edition, edited by George E. Carter, C. Peter Ripley, and Jeffrey Rossbach (Sanford, N.C.: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1981), pp. 1–4. The Guide lists the 14,000 documents and almost 300 individuals on which the five Black Abolitionist Papers books published by the University of North Carolina Press between 1985 and 1992 were based.
Dinwiddie County Chancery Order Book 1, 1832–1852, microfilm reel 18, Library of Virginia (hereafter LVA), Richmond, Va. The document, dated April 2, 1834, refers to an earlier court order. Seventh Census of the United States, 1850: Caswell County, North Carolina, Population Schedule, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Day’s household, listed under “Free Inhabitants,” included two mulatto females—“Morning S. Day, 84” and “Aquila Day, 49.” The only other family members listed were Thomas Day, aged 49, and his son, Devereux, who is identified as a 17-year-old cabinetmaker.
Franklin, The Free Negro, p. 59. Thomas A. Stewart left two wills, one dated September 22, 1804, and the other May 18, 1808. In the first, he left his grandson a slave named Rhoda. In the second he gave “unto my grand son John Day, a girl named Rhody.” Several transcribers wrote the name of this slave as “Thody,” but the correct name is clear on the first original (Dinwiddie County, Virginia Wills, 1801–1869, microfilm reel 57, LVA). Conversation between Paul Heinegg and Laurel C. Sneed at a symposium sponsored by the Thomas Day Education Project titled “Navigating the Labyrinth of Race,” Yanceyville, N.C., November 11, 2000. “Eulogy of Rev. Edward W. Blyden, on the Rev. John Day, Monrovia, 1859,” African Repository 37, no. 5 (1861): 154–58.
John Day to James B. Taylor, October 16, 1847, John Day Missionary Correspondence to the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tenn.
The Vestry Book and Register of Bristol Parish, Virginia, 1720–1789, transcribed and published by Churchill Gibson Chamberlayne (Richmond, Va.: privately printed, 1898), pp. 24, 58. These transcribed parish papers detail baptisms, deaths, and births, including those of several mulatto children of “Eliz. Stuard.” A 1731 vestry order notes that two “Melettos,” Tom and Will, were bound to Captain Peter Wynn who owned property near Thomas Stewart’s future Dinwiddie County landholdings. (Wynn’s stepmother, the widow of his father Joshue Wynn[e], may have been the “Mrs. Fran. Wynn” who owned the house where “Eliz. Stuard” gave birth to another “mulatto” son in 1725.) Berlin, Slaves without Masters, p. 6. There is no record of Stewart’s attendance at either of America’s earliest medical schools: the Medical Department of the College of Philadelphia, established in 1765 (predecessor of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School), or the Faculty of Physic of King’s College in New York, established in 1776 (now, Columbia University Medical School). He could have received training from any number of sources, including an apothecary, a root medicine practitioner, or a physician. Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to about 1820, 5th ed., 2 vols. (Baltimore, Md.: Clearfield, 2005), 2: 1091–92. Heinegg lists fourteen children in order of birth date, with Mourning (born ca. 1766) as Stewart’s fourth child and second daughter. Court testimony by Stewart’s granddaughter Hannah, however, indicates that Mourning was the fifth-born child. Hannah stated that Stewart had married twice and that his first wife had one daughter and three sons (Hannah Stewart v. Elizabeth Chavis, not dated, Mecklenburg County Chancery Causes, 1872-007, LVA). If Stewart was officially married twice, Mourning’s mother may have been a common-law wife. Stewart married his second wife of record, Winifred Atkins, on February 5, 1795 (Catherine Lindsay Knorr, Marriage Bonds and Minister’s Returns of Sussex County, Virginia, 1754–1810 [Pine Bluff, Ark.: Purdue Co., 1952], p. 77). Will of Thomas A. Stewart, September 22, 1804. Stewart left his daughter Mourning and her heirs twenty-five pounds. John Day to James B. Taylor, October 16, 1847; John Day to James B. Taylor, December 22, 1847; Catharine Day to James B. Taylor, May 23, 1860, John Day Missionary Correspondence. Catharine wrote, “I have not received since the death of my husband, a line from his brother, Mr. Thomas Day, who, when I last heard was residing in Milton, N.C. I do not know whether he is alive or dead; whether he has removed or still lives in Milton.”
John Day to James B. Taylor, October 16, 1847, John Day Missionary Correspondence. John noted that his father had owned a “pretty little plantation” in Sussex County, Virginia. By 1810 John Day Sr. had acquired about sixty acres near present-day Jarratt (Gary M. Williams, Sussex County, Virginia: A Heritage Recalled by the Land [Petersburg, Va.: Dietz Press, 2012], p. 90 n. 119). To this day, the property is known as Johnny Day Field. According to a direct descendant of Thomas Eppes, Thomas Day lived nearby and was likely responsible for the interior woodwork in Eppes’s house, including the massive chimneypiece (Katherine Eppes Jarratt to Patricia Dane Rogers, November 19, 2011). Williams, Sussex County, pp. 77, 90 n. 114 (Williams cites p. 84 in G. Michael Wildasin, “The Methodist and Quaker Challenge to Slavery in Jeffersonian Virginia” [Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., 1972]). The original list of “Manumitters in Sussex County, Virginia, 1782–1806,” is in the Sussex County Courthouse, Sussex, Va. Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye, Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice (Philadelphia: Quaker Press, 2009), p. 112.
Sneed and Westfall, Uncovering the Hidden History of Thomas Day, pp. 5–7, 20–23. Although John Day Jr. is usually a reliable correspondent, and many statements from his autobiographical letter can be proven, his account of his father’s birth and childhood has yet to be verified. For tax and land records pertaining to the elder John Day of Greensville County, see Heinegg, Free African Americans, 1: 399 n. 88. When Thomas Day married in 1830, Uriah Jeffreys of Greensville County, Virginia, was his bondsman.
John Day to James B. Taylor, October 16, 1847, John Day Missionary Correspondence. John Bolling was likely John Peyton Bolling (1788–1861), scion of a Petersburg family with large landholdings. In 1817, the year that John Day Sr. left his son to pay his debt, Bolling owned 1,160 1/2 acres of farmland in the same Dinwiddie neighborhood where the elder Day rented property before moving to Warren County, North Carolina. Land Records Dinwiddie County, Virginia, 1752–1820, compiled and indexed by Thomas P. Hughes and Jewel B. Standefer (Memphis, Tenn: Thomas P. Hughes, 1973), p. 47.
Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Baker Day of Columbia, Maryland, own the Bible, which was first reported in the Washington Post, February 13, 1997.
Quotations and comments are excerpted and paraphrased from the sidebar about Harding in Peter H. Wood, “Who Was Nehemiah Henry Harding: A Minister Wrestles with His Conscience,” in the first edition of Sneed and Rogers, The Hidden History of Thomas Day, pp. 11–12. Wood’s article was based on “A Recreant Minister,” Liberator, June 29, 1838.
Map of Dinwiddie County, Virginia, surveyed by Isham E. Hardgrave, 1820, Dinwiddie County Courthouse, Dinwiddie, Va. Stewart’s property was about five miles west of present-day McKenney, Virginia. According to the U.S. Federal Census of 1850, Thomas Day was born in 1801. He was likely born on his grandfather’s property since Dinwiddie County tax lists show his father lived there with sons of Dr. Stewart from 1800 to 1802 (Dinwiddie County Property Taxes, 1782–1799, reel 113.7, Seimes Microform Center, Daughters of the American Revolution Library, Washington, D.C.). Kay Moss, Southern Folk Medicine, 1750–1820 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), p. 46. “Specifick balsam” is likely a popular patent medicine known as “the Balsam of Life.” Developed by London merchant Robert Turlington in 1744, it was used for external and respiratory complaints. Hobbs’s signed notice appeared on page 3, column 1, of this popular newspaper, published by Dixon and Hunter. The original is in the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Va., http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/VirginiaGazette/VGImagePopup.cfm?ID=6314&Res=HI.
Land Records Dinwiddie County, p. 6. Stewart was taxed on 903 acres in Dinwiddie County in 1809. For the slave figure, see Heirs of Thomas Stewart v. Heirs of Thomas Stewart, Chancery Cases, 1876-083, folder 3, Chancery Causes, Manuscripts and Archives, LVA. Will of Thomas A. Stewart, September 22, 1804, Dinwiddie County Wills, 1801–1869, microfilm reel 57, LVA, Richmond, Va. Peachy R. Grattan, Reports of Cases Decided in the Supreme Court of Appeals and in the General Court of Virginia from April 1, 1848 to April 1, 1849, vol. 5, no. 46 (Richmond, Va.: John Colin, 1849), pp. 61–62. A summary of an appeal in the case of Worsham v. Hardaway’s Administrators in 1840 cites the crux of the case of Stewart’s slaves versus Stewart’s heirs in Chancery Court in Richmond and its dismissal in 1827.
For a list of tools and furniture listed in the John Day Sr. estate papers, see Marshall and Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman, pp. 195–97. Jerome Bias notes, “the tools suggest that he [John Day Sr.] was building houses. I am basing this on the presence of augers. They would have been used to build timber frame houses” (Bias, email message to Laurel Sneed, November 11, 2009). The presence of paint and an oilstone in the inventory also suggests that John Day could have been painting interior woodwork. In an interview with Patricia Rogers on June 8, 2013, Gregory Tyler, the researcher who discovered the John Day estate papers in the North Carolina Archives in Raleigh, said county records show that John Day made at least three caskets in 1830. David B. Gammon, Abstracts of Wills, Warren County, North Carolina, 1779–1844 (Raleigh, N.C.: David B. Gammon, 1995), p. 117. On July 27, 1841, John Wadkins left his grand-daughter Eliza “a chest of drawers and a bed made by John Day.” Gammon’s transcription is from Warren County, North Carolina Wills, Book 38, p. 510.
Abraham Camp, as quoted in The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written during the Crisis, 1800–1860, edited by Carter G. Woodson (New York: Russell & Russell, 1969), pp. 2–3. Signed by Francis Scott Key and three others, the 1820 petition to Congress to form the “American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States” begins with the statement that if the “rapid increase of free people of color” continues at the same rate, “it will appear how large a proportion of our population will, in the course of even a few years consist of persons of that description . . . this description of persons are not, and cannot be either useful or happy among us . . . . No nation has it so much in its power to furnish proper settlers . . . no nation has so deep an interest in thus disposing of them.” McDaniel and Julye, Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship, pp. 56–59. The manifest describing the “Ship Carolinian’s Company, arrived at Monrovia December 4, 1830,” lists John Day as a cabinetmaker who could read and write. It can be accessed online in the Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection of the Cornell University Library. See Tables Showing the Number of Emigrants and Recaptured Africans Sent to the Colony of Liberia by the Government of the United States: Also, the Number of Emigrants Free Born, Number That Purchased Their Freedom, Number Emancipated andc: Together with a Census of the Colony, and a Report of Its Commerce, andc, September 1845 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1845).
Jill Baskin Schade, email message to Janie Leigh Carter and Patricia Rogers, July 24, 2013. Schade is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, whose dissertation explores the visual and material culture of African Americans in Liberia from 1821 to 1865. She notes that a material analysis of Thomas Day’s work might indicate whether he used African woods. She also raises the question of whether early work that appears to be by Thomas Day is actually by his brother. In addition to the African Repository, the initial notice about John Day’s interest in exporting furniture was published in the Spectator (New York) on May 4, 1835. The September 15, 1836, edition of that paper reported that “John Day, a cabinetmaker,” had moved to the Caldwell settlement on July 30, 1836, to take charge of a boys’ school supported by the “American Baptist Foreign Mission,” the earliest report of his work as a missionary in Liberia.
“Thomas Day, Cabinet Maker,” Milton Gazette & Roanoke Advertiser, March 1, 1827.
Acts Passed by the General Assembly of North Carolina at Its Session Commencing on the 25th of December, 1826 (Raleigh, N.C.: Lawrence & Lemay, 1827), chap. 21, p. 67: “An act to prevent free persons of colour from migrating into this State for the good government of such persons resident in the State, and for other purposes.” Journals of the Senate and of the House of Commons and General Assembly of the State of North Carolina at the Session of 1830–31 (Raleigh, N.C.: Lawrence & Lemay, 1831), pp. 237–38. The bill permitting Aquilla Day to reside in North Carolina passed 74 to 40. The petition, with Saunders’s imprimatur, was ordered published in the official record the same day, Christmas Eve, 1830. The bill appears in Acts Passed by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina at the Session of 1830–31 (Raleigh, N.C.: Lawrence & Lemay, 1831), chap. 81, sec. 1–2, p. 79: “An act to authorize Aquilla Day, otherwise called Aquilla Wilson, to reside in the State.” Research by Dr. G. C. Waldrep III of Bucknell University has identified Aquilla as the daughter of Martin Wilson and Priscilla Matthews, both descended from long lines of free people of color in Halifax County. The Wilsons lived near Halifax Court House, and the Matthews were in the county as early as 1760. Born in 1805 or 1806, Aquilla was the sixth of twelve children. In 1837 the entire family migrated to Jennings County, Indiana. A letter from Day to his daughter indicates that either Priscilla or Aquilla’s sister Frances (who married a cousin named William Wilson and lived in Pike County, Ohio) visited the Days in Milton as late as 1851. G. C. Waldrep, telephone interview with Patricia Rogers, October 10, 2006. Journal of the House of Commons of North Carolina, 1830–1831, 238, OAH.
Ira Berlin to Laurel Sneed, March 2007, TDEP.
James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 4, 13–14, 87–90, 164–65, 199.
Thomas Day to Mary Ann Day, not dated, collection of Mary Satterfield (1911–2003), Milton, N.C.
Thomas Day to Mary Ann Day, November 27, 1851, collection of Mary Satterfield (1911–2003), Milton, N.C.
David L. Lightner and Alexander M. Ragan, “Were African American Slaveholders Benevolent or Exploitative? A Quantitative Approach,” Journal of Southern History 71, no. 3 (August 2005): 552, 555. The authors conclude that in 1830, a white person was only three times as likely as a free person of color to own a slave. Free blacks totaled 2.01 percent of North Carolina’s total population in 1830 and 3.01 percent in 1840. Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina, pp. 18, 236–37. Juliet E. K. Walker, The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998), p. 38.
Paquette, “Thomas Day: An Inquiry,” pp. 13–14. Paquette details the relationship between Day and the Siewers brothers and quotes the journal entry from Augustus Fogle describing Day’s workforce. See Augustus Fogle, Travel Accounts for the Years 1832–1895, Augustus T. Fogle Letters, 1820–1897, Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Caswell County, North Carolina, Slave Schedule, National Archives, Washington, D.C. The enumeration of Day’s slaves was taken on two different dates. The list also included a sixty-six-year-old man, a woman, fifty-five, and two females in their early twenties. People identified as mulatto in the census were sometimes described as “bright” or “yellow,” meaning that they were not dark-skinned. Day’s daughter Mary Ann is classified as mulatto in the 1850 census when she was at school in Wilbraham. Her brother Thomas has no racial designation. Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina, p. 237.
Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), p. 78, notes that Brick Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church on Lombard Street had a seating capacity of eight hundred. The Elite of Our People: Joseph Willson’s Sketches of Black Upper Class Life in Antebellum Philadelphia, edited by Julie Winch (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), p. 130 n. 37. Peter H. Wood, “What We Know of the 20 People Who Were with Thomas Day in Philadelphia,” notes shared with the Thomas Day Education Project, June 13, 2007. William Whipper is profiled in The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1830–46, 3: 129–30. The reference to Whipper’s clandestine Underground Railroad activities is from William Still, The Underground Rail Road (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), pp. 735–36.
M. B. Goodwin, “History of Schools of the Colored Population,” in The American Negro: His History and Literature (New York: Arno Press and New York Times, 1969), p. 213. This “History” is a reprint of “Section C of the Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Improvement of Public Schools in the District of Columbia, 1871.” The report was originally issued by Henry Barnard, the first U.S. Commissioner of Education. It provided a detailed account of the development of the District’s African American schools and substantial biographical information about Reverend John Francis Cook, James H. Fleet, and Thomas Day’s daughters-in-law, Virginia and Annie Washington (pp. 196, 200–203, 205, 207–11, 213–14, 216–17). Dorothy S. Provine, District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821–1861, 2 vols. (Berwyn Heights, Md.: Heritage Books 1996), 2: 229. Cook was manumitted on December 10, 1832, and his emancipation was recorded three days later under Registration No. 1069: “Lethee (Lethe) Tanner, in consideration of five dollars, manumits her ‘servant man’ named John Francis Cook, who is about twenty-two years old.”
Provine, District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1: 154. Tanner’s activities are detailed in a lengthy note accompanying Registration No. 705, the July 9, 1829, manumission paper for John Cook’s brother Alfred. The list of people Tanner emancipated is derived from this note and from cross-checking the manumission records of people listed in the index under Tanner and Cook. Augustus Price’s full name and his close relationship to Andrew Jackson are reported in The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1830–46, 3: 153. This relationship was also noted by James Parton, a nineteenth-century Jackson biographer who interviewed Jackson’s official private secretary, Nicholas Trist (James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. [New York: Mason Brothers, 1861], 3: 606–7). According to historian Peter Wood, Gardiner’s guests were “a veritable who’s who of the black elite. . . . Almost all of them seem to have achieved remarkable economic success. All have confronted the issues of social and civic leadership (integration vs. separation, Africa vs. America, open abolitionism vs. accommodationist gradualism, acceptance vs. confrontation) that are uppermost in the country in that turbulent year” (Peter Wood to Laurel Sneed, June 13, 2007, TDEP).
Jefferson Morley, Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 2012), pp. 89, 104, 105, 154, 214. Robert Vincent Remini, Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy, 1833–1845, 3 vols. (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 3: 269. Faced with demands to fire Augustus, Jackson responded, “My servants are” responsible to “me alone” and are “entitled to protection at my hands” (Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 3: 606–7).
The Present State and Condition of the Free People of Color of the City of Philadelphia and Adjoining Districts as Exhibited by the Report of a Committee of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, &c. (Philadelphia: the Society, 1838), pp. 1, 26–28. The population figure of 13,591 free black individuals appears on page 5.
Information about Peter and Serena Gardiner is on pp. 130 n. 35 and 147 n. 60; on Frederick Augustus Hinton, pp. 58–60, 150–51 n. 72; on Junius Morel, pp. 135–37 nn. 49–50 and p. 150 n. 71. All, Winch ed., The Elite of Our People. Charles Bennett Ray is mentioned several times in the story and we felt this bolstered the claim that Wesleyan was a training ground for abolitionists. No academic we consulted had ever seen anything like this spelled out in writing. It sets us up for raising a question about Day’s use of the same terms. M. N. Work, “Life of Charles B. Ray,” Journal of Negro History 4, no. 4 (October 1919): 369–70. Correspondence between Ray and Washington attorney Jacob Bigelow offers rare documentation of coded language Underground Railroad operatives used, this time in a plan to transport “a little parcel” to Canada: a ten-year-old slave girl disguised as a boy. According to Ray, railroad terminology was used to “more effectively secure concealment” of fugitive slaves; “box” and “package” also referred to human cargo; “depot” and “station,” to a safe destination. Bigelow asks Ray to inform him of the “arrival of the package without breakage or injury” and to return the disguise, its “wrapper . . . for I have another similar parcel to send.”
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 135. Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: James Forten (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 260. Hinton was a member of Forten’s inner circle as well as William Lloyd Garrison’s. Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004), p. 65.
Journal of the Convention, Called by the Freemen of North-Carolina to Amend the Constitution of the State, which Assembled in the City of Raleigh on the 4th of June 1835, and Continued in Session until the 11th Day of July Thereafter (Philadelphia: J. Gales & Son, 1835), pp. 22–23. Article 1, section 3 of the amended constitution states that “No free Negro, free mulatto or free persons of mixed blood descended from negro ancestors to the fourth generation inclusive, though the ancestor of each generation may have been a white person, shall vote for members of the Senate or House of Commons.” “Negro Voters,” Liberator, July 4, 1835.
Loren Schweninger, “John Carruthers Stanly and the Anomaly of Black Slaveholding,” North Carolina Historical Review 67, no. 2 (April 1990): 165, 178. Schweninger concludes that Stanly owned more than twice as many slaves as the individual widely alleged to be the second largest free black slave owner in the South.
Ibid., pp. 177, 192. Schweninger notes that in 1830 Stanly owned all but a few of the 163 slaves listed as living on his various properties. Stephen Franks Miller, Recollections of Newbern Fifty Years Ago: With an Appendix Including Letters from Judges Gaston, Donnell, Manly and Gov. Swain (Raleigh, N.C.: S. D. Poole, 1874), p. 21. The recollections of this ninety-year old attorney, newspaper editor, and former New Bern resident are available through the Eastern North Carolina University Digital Library, http://digital.lib.ecu.edu/13575 (accessed December 5, 2013).
Schweninger, “John Carruthers Stanly and the Anomaly of Black Slaveholding,” p. 178. The author identifies John D. Whitford as the resident who described Stanly as a “harsh taskmaster.” Colonel John Dalton Whitford, a local historian, was elected mayor of New Bern at twenty-one, president of the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad at twenty-nine, and a delegate to the state convention that voted for secession in 1861. See Bill Hand, A Walking Guide to North Carolina’s Historic New Bern (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2007), p. 67. Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina, p. 31.
“Negro Voters,” Liberator, July 4, 1835. Cape Fear Recorder, September 10, 1830.
“Important Intelligence from Liberia,” Colored American, December 8, 1848. Sheridan’s lengthy letter from Liberia to abolitionist Lewis Tappan, Tappan’s response, and this revelation that Sheridan had originally told him that he regarded colonization efforts as a “humbug” consumed the entire front page and part of the second of this edition of the newspaper. “From the Pennsylvania Freeman: Louis Sheridan,” Colored American, August 4, 1838. The newspaper reprinted an undated article and anonymous letter that had appeared in the Pennsylvania Freeman, a publication edited by John Greenleaf Whittier. The Colored American did not reveal the identity of the letter’s author until four months later.
The source for Stanly’s Petition PAR 11280205 to free two mulatto boys is available online at http://library.uncg.edu/slavery/details.aspx?pid=735.
According to an online transcription of the “session minutes” of the Milton Presbyterian Church by librarian Martha Spencer, a Caswell County native, Cory became a member on April 6, 1845. http://www.roots.web.ancestry.com/~nccaswel/misc/milton-ses.htm (accessed December 5, 2013). Marshall and Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman, p. 29. A member of the audience at the panel discussion “Thomas Day: Man, Maker and Mogul,” at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum on May 10, 2013, asked if Day was involved with the Underground Railroad. Panelists did not address the question, but attendee Marian Thomas, the former director of the Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Restoration, Inc., stated that the rumor of Day’s involvement originated with a Milton resident who lived in the tavern before it burned and whose forebears knew Day personally.
The podcast of Peter H. Wood’s interview can be accessed at http://ashp.cuny.edu/?podcast=free-blacks-in-the-south-life-of-thomas-day.
Lunsford Lane, The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C., Embracing an Account of His Early Life, the Redemption by Purchase of Himself and Family from Slavery. And His Banishment from the Place of His Birth for the Crime of Wearing a Colored Skin, Published by Himself (Boston: J. G. Torrey, 1842), p. 31.
Thomas Day to David L. Swain, November 17, 1847, University of North Carolina Papers (#40005), University Archives, Wilson Library (hereafter WL), Chapel Hill. Thomas Day to Benjamin S. Guion, November 17, 1847, Papers of the Philanthropic and Dialectic Societies, WL. Thomas Day to Peter E. Hines, November 1, 1848, Papers of the Philanthropic and Dialectic Societies, WL. Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners in the South, 1790–1915 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 136.
James L. Roark, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of American History at Emory University, comments about “the many lives and interests,” “Thomas Day: Man, Maker and Mogul,” Renwick Gallery, May 10, 2013. William A. Robinson, quoting Caroline Pell Gunter and Paul Ader in “Thomas Day and His Family,” pp. 123–24. Gunter described Day’s wife as “Portuguese” in the News & Observer, June 30, 1929. Ader said Day was West Indian in the Greensboro Daily News, February 9, 1941. Recent assumptions about Day’s appearance have been based on a frequently published image of a fair-skinned man long believed to be John Day Jr. and therefore assumed to resemble his brother to some degree, but the picture has now been determined to have been misidentified. In a telephone interview with Patricia Rogers on June 6, 2013, Ann Shumard, Curator of Photographs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and curator of “A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington,” a 1999 exhibition that included daguerreotypes of prominent black Americans living in Liberia. Shumard said that there is “no way that could be a portrait of John Day,” because John Day died in 1859 and the costume of the man in the photograph is considerably later. The image identified as John Day’s portrait first appeared in Nan F. Weeks and Blanche Sydnor White, Liberia for Christ: Presenting the Story of Virginia Baptists in the Colonization, Development, and Christian Conquest of the Republic of Liberia (Richmond, Va.: Women’s Missionary Union by Virginia, 1959), p. 11.
Laws of the State of North Carolina Passed by the General Assembly at the Session of 1844–1845 (Raleigh, N.C.: Thomas J. Lemay, 1845), chap. 36, sec. 14, pp. 152–53. An amendment to previous acts, the law excluded blacks by stating that “any branch of English education may be taught in said schools; and all white persons over the age of four years old shall be permitted the school of their district, as scholars, and receive instruction therein.” Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina, p. 164. Schweninger, Black Property Owners in the South, 1790–1915, p. 138.
David Sherman, History of the Wesleyan Academy at Wilbraham, Mass., 1817–1890 (Boston: McDonald & Gill Company, 1893), p. 286. Twenty-fifth Annual Catalogue of the Wesleyan Academy, Wilbraham, Mass., 1849–1850 (Springfield, Mass.: George W. Wilson Printer, 1850), p. 21. Ira Berlin to Laurel C. Sneed, March 2007, TDEP.
“American Anti-Slavery Society. Roll of Members and Delegates, Present at the Late Annual Meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society,” Liberator, May 29, 1840. Caswell County Deed Book 2, March 11, 1858, pp. 508–9, Office of the Register of Deeds, Caswell County Courthouse, Yanceyville, N.C. One of Day’s creditors was “Seymore & Company of New York,” likely the prominent hardware retailer W. N. Seymour & Co. on Chatham Square. E. Didier depicted the exterior of the building and its name in his painting Auction at Chatham Square (Museum of the City of New York). The museum also owns “Chatham Square. New York,” an N. Currier lithograph that shows the Seymour hardware emporium in the background. In an undated letter to Mary Ann, Day notes that receipt of a “box of goods” that “Mr. James Hunter of New York” shipped to her at school has not been acknowledged. Day insists that she go to the Wilbraham “depot” with Wesleyan’s principal, Miner Raymond, to ascertain the whereabouts of the “box.” Given the town’s reputation as an Underground Railroad stronghold with a bevy of safe houses, Day’s now known ties to abolitionists associated with the Underground Railroad and long-standing rumors of his own involvement, one may infer that the references to the “box of goods” and “depot” are code for fugitive slaves and a safe haven.
Sherman, History of the Wesleyan Academy, p. 280. “Agency in Behalf of the Free People of Color,” Colored American, December 7, 1839. The announcement of Beman’s employment included a request for “information of all schools and seminaries of higher grades, where persons of color may enjoy the same advantages accorded to the whites.” Colored American, May 23, 1840.
Minutes of the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour in the United States: Held by Adjournments, in the Wesley Church, Philadelphia, from the First to the Fifth of June, Inclusive, 1835 (Philadelphia: William P. Gibbons, 1835), p. 17. Yellin, Harriet Jacobs, p. 298 n. 97. Louisa Jacobs, daughter of Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave from Edenton, North Carolina, attended Kellogg’s integrated school in 1848. In his undated letter to Mary Ann, Day wrote, “Devereux was worse when he came home from Clinton by a great deal than when he left home” (Collection of Milton community historian, Mary Satterfield [1911–2003]). Although no catalogue for the 1849 school year has yet been found to verify Devereux’s attendance, the context of Day’s letter leaves room for the possibility that Devereux briefly attended this work-study school before joining his siblings in Massachusetts. Annual Catalogue & Circular of Terms of Comer’s Commercial College of Boston (Boston: Damrell & Moore, 1857), frontispiece. Cook’s diary shows that he and Pittsburgh abolitionist J. B. Vashon were in constant communication. Vashon’s son George had received a B.A. from Oberlin in 1844 and was its first African American graduate. Cook’s own sons, John and George, would later go there, too. John also attended New York Central College, where his father’s friend Charles Reason was professor of Greek, Latin, French, and mathematics. Cook recorded the arduous twelve-day round trip between Philadelphia to McGrawville and back to Washington from August 31 to September 11, 1851, in his diary.
The U.S. Federal Census of 1850 lists Devereux in Milton at the same time Mary Ann and Thomas were enumerated in Wilbraham. They are listed in the Wesleyan catalogues of 1849–1850, 1850–1851, and 1851–1852. Devereux is listed only in the catalogues of 1850–1851 and 1851–1852. Thomas Day to Mary Ann Day, November 27, 1851. The transcribed copy from the collection of Mary Satterfield (1911–2003), Milton, N.C., in the archives of the Thomas Day Education Project has periods after the “R” and the “M,” while an undated copy of a fragment of the mimeographed original letter owned by Satterfield and William A. Robinson before her does not.
Sherman, History of the Wesleyan Academy, pp. 196, 225. Josephine F. Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), pp. 180–82. Two sources indicate that Day delivered and retrieved his children from boarding school: the November 27, 1851, letter to Mary Ann in which he openly worries about Devereux’s health and tells her he will go to see him in Boston in the summer of 1852; and John Cook’s diary entry of May 12, 1850, which suggests that Day was on his way from Milton to Wilbraham with Thomas Jr. and Mary Ann. From Washington City, they could have taken trains to Baltimore and Philadelphia and from Philadelphia a steamship to New York and from there to Boston, the port nearest to Wilbraham. From Boston he could have taken a train to Springfield and then a stagecoach to Wilbraham, which was and is a Springfield suburb. Sherman, History of the Wesleyan Academy, p. 238: “one of the great enterprises of the time was the building of the Boston & Albany railroad which was completed from Boston to Springfield in 1839.” The debate leading to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act is vividly depicted by historian Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac.
“Black codes were enacted for the convenience of the white majority who applied them in times of . . . stress and slave unrest but ignored them when it was in their interest” (Rodney Barfield, “Thomas and John Day and the Journey to North Carolina,” in Thomas Day: African American Furniture Maker, p. 9). “The Cook Family in History,” Negro History Bulletin 9, no. 9 (June 1946): 195–96. The article focuses on the Cook family of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which included John Hartwell Cook, a student of the Reverend John F. Cook’s in Washington and later dean of Howard University Law School.
Lewis Tappan reported Sheridan’s trip in the Colored American, December 8, 1838. Kathleen Housley,”Yours for the Oppressed: The Life of Jehiel C. Beman,” Journal of Negro History 7, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 17–29. Beman, a shoemaker and preacher from Middletown, Connecticut, reported his experience on the train in a letter to the editor for the August 16, 1844, edition of the Emancipator. After attending a conference in Baltimore, he and another minister visited several black leaders in Washington, including “Rev. Mr. Cook and his school for black children.” A facsimile of Day’s original insolvency indenture lists “Seymore & Co.” of New York, P. E. Brenan of Baltimore, and Pannell and Son of Petersburg as creditors (Caswell County Deed Book II, March 11 , p. 508, Caswell County Court House, Yanceyville, N.C.).
Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom: A Comprehensive History (1898; reprint, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2006), p. 10. Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina, pp. 211–12. John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, edited by Richard K. Cralle (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnson, 1851), pp. 37–38, online version accessed on Google Books.
John Day, “Sentiments of Colonization in Liberia,” Colonization Herald, p. 145.
Later, Grimes raised the funds to buy the freedom of Anthony Burns, who was apprehended by slave catchers in Boston in 1854 under the Fugitive Slave Law.
John Marsh, Marsh’s New Diary or Daily Rememberancer (Boston: John Marsh, 1850. Cook Family Papers, Collection 20, box 3, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C. Cook recorded the Days’ visit on May 12 and May 13, 1850.
William A. Robinson to Carter Woodson, May 20, 1927, Carter G. Woodson Papers, Library of Congress. In this letter, Robinson reported that he has received a letter from Caroline Pell Gunter, whom he describes as “some white woman I don’t know” and has begun to research his family. In her letter, dated May 16, 1927, Gunter requested that Robinson send a picture of “Tom Day, Sr.” and asked what became of his children. Goodwin, History of Schools of the Colored People, pp. 206–11, 216–17, states that Anie Washington was “educated chiefly under Rev. John Francis Cook and Miss Myrtilla Miner.” Miner, a white abolitionist from New York State, opened her “genteel school for missus of color” in 1851 to train black female teachers with seed money from Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The credit ledger identifies Thomas Day as a “Milton Cabinetmaker” (North Carolina Credit Ledger, vol. 5, p. 187, R. G. Dun & Co. Credit Report Volumes, Baker Library, Harvard University Business School, Boston, Mass.). Founded by Lewis Tappan in 1841, the Mercantile Agency was later known as R. G. Dun & Co. of New York. Day sold 206.38 of his 270 acres in 1856. See Caswell County Deeds, Book II, March 19, September 2, and May (undated, 1856), pp. 238, 423, 355. Edward J. Balleisen, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), p. 3. Prown, “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation” p. 218. North Carolina Credit Ledger 5, p. 187. Caswell County Deeds, Book II, March 11, 1858, pp. 508–9, 778. Day’s presumed 1861 death date may derive from the date on the chimney of the James Malone House, but his 1858 letter to former Governor Reid of North Carolina concerning a furniture order makes it clear that he was seriously ill. It is possible that the elaborate interior (and exterior trim) at the Malone House in the Caswell County town of Leasburg is the work of Thomas Jr. An excellent house carpenter in his own right, he would later fabricate the beautiful woodwork in the summer home of Zebulon Vance near Asheville.
“A Few Strange Incidents from the South: Through the Carolinas,” Christian Recorder, April 15, 1865. The author, identified only as “Arnold,” describes the fall of the city to federal troops, the state of its schools, and identifies a number of free black citizens, including “Mr. Thomas Day.” The Christian Recorder also noted that “Misses Day, Sampsons and Cowan” had been teaching in Wilmington’s “underground” schools for “a number of years.” A letter from “Miss Mary A. Day,” datelined Wilmington and describing her teaching experience there, establishes her presence in the city at the same time as her brother. See Mary Ann Day, correspondence to the American Missionary Association, August 1865, American Missionary Association Archives, no. 10027, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, La. Meeting of October 9, 1864, Records of the Presbyterian Church of Milton, N.C., Historical Foundation of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, Montreat, N.C. The church’s records show that on this date, Mrs. A. Day “requested a “letter of dismission to the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, North Carolina.” Martha Spencer’s transcription of the church minutes appears online at www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nccaswel/misc/milton-ses2.htm (accessed August 10, 2008).
The fate of Devereux is unknown, although Robinson asserts in his article that he “ran away with the white daughter of one of the best families” in Milton. Christian Recorder, April 15, 1865. The article noted that Mary Ann, the Sampson sisters, and Miss Cowan had helped Brigadier General Hawley organize the enormous school for nearly seven hundred children, and that it was in “splendid running order” at the time of the meeting. “A Few Strange Incidents from the South,” Christian Recorder, September 30, 1865, described a steamship trip to Wilmington via Philadelphia, New York, and New Bern, where the reporter arrives at “Bro. Chresfield’s.” After preparing for the Presbyterian ministry at the Ashmun Institute (later Lincoln University), Chresfield dropped out to teach in Wilmington during the Civil War. The article describes the progress made by the students in a school held in the First Presbyterian Church, the one that Aquilla asked to join. The author appears to be describing Chresfield when he writes, “The children reflected great credit on their preceptor, a colored man of considerable education.’’
Christian Recorder, April 15, 1865. James D. Sampson Papers, North Carolina Room, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C. Beverly Tetterton, former archivist for the Wilmington library system and editor of William M. Reaves, Strength Through Struggle: The Chronological and Historical Record of the African-American Community in Wilmington, North Carolina, 1865–1950 (Wilmington, N.C.: New Hanover County Public Library, 1998), surmises that the Days were in Wilmington through the auspices of the Sampson family.
Mary Ann Day, correspondence to the American Missionary Association, August 1865, American Missionary Association Archives, no. 10027, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, La.
Thomas Day’s Bible lists Mary Ann’s death date as September 6, 1870. Her infant son, James Day Chresfield, died in January 1871. Annie Day Shepard’s husband, Dr. D. A. Robinson, a graduate of Shaw University Medical School in Raleigh, North Carolina, was a physician in Danville, Virginia.