by Lisa Y. Henderson
Thomas Day, a cabinetmaker by trade, is the most celebrated of North Carolina’s antebellum craftsmen. He was born 1801 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, to a family of free, landowning African-Americans. His father, John Day, was a skilled cabinetmaker who plied other trades as well, but always relied on woodworking to bring in money. Thomas and his brother John Day were well-educated. John’s education, during which he boarded with prominent whites and attending schools with them, is documented in his later correspondence, and it is assumed that Thomas did the same. Both of the Day sons initially followed in their father’s footsteps, learning the skills of a cabinetmaker. John eventually left the trade to study theology and later moved to Liberia, becoming one of its founders by signing its Declaration of Independence.
John Day moved to Warren County by 1820 and it is believed that Thomas was with him. The Days had established themselves in the furniture business in Milton by 1823. Thomas Day became a prominent and well-respected citizen of the community. In response to an act that prohibited free blacks from immigrating into the state, Milton’s white leaders petitioned the General Assembly in 1830 to allow Day’s bride, Aquilla Wilson, a free black from Virginia, to join him. They reared two sons and a daughter. In his almost forty years in Milton, Thomas Day built an extraordinary business, employing freedmen and slaves alike to craft stock lines of furniture and to fill custom orders for furniture and interior woodworking. By 1850, Day had the largest cabinetry shop in North Carolina. He is believed to have died in about 1861, after having suffered financial losses due to the national panic of 1857.
Adapted from ncmarkers.com.
In the 1850 census of Milton, Caswell County: Thomas Day, 49, cabinetmaker, born Virginia, property valued at $8000; wife Aquila, 44; son Devereux J., 17, cabinetmaker, born Milton; Mourning S. Day, 84, born VA; and Joshua Wood, 32, cabinetnaker; all mulatto except the last, who was white.