Thomas Day, a free African American, left his own enduring mark on UNC. This statue in front of the N.C. Museum of History is an artist's representation of Day, with wood plane in hand. No known photograph of Day exists. (N.C. Museum of History)
The desks and podium as they looked when used by the debating society in New West during the late 19th Century.
The North Carolina Museum of History's exhibit "Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker" includes the largest assembled collection of Day furniture. (N.C. Museum of History)
Day built the podium and desks used in the Debating Hall of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Image Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History)
Thomas Day:art rises above prejudice
Slaves helped to build the University’s first building, Old East, in 1793 and worked on Old West and Gerrard Hall three decades later.
Until an ordinance was passed abolishing the practice in 1845, students could bring “college servants” to campus to handle such chores as blackening their boots, carrying their books or cutting firewood to heat their dorms.
The dark stain of slavery is woven into Carolina’s history. But so, too, is the uplifting tale of Thomas Day, a free African American who, through his art and business acumen, left his own enduring mark on the University.
It was first in evidence on the second floors of Old East and Old West, which in 1848 became the new chambers for the Philanthropic and Dialectic Societies, the oldest student organizations on campus. For centuries, these societies prepared students for careers in law, teaching and the ministry by providing an outlet for debate.
Day was hired in fall 1847 to build benches for the halls and shelves in 14 alcoves in those two buildings for the grand sum of $293.25. Day’s bid was $100 higher than that of another bidder, but was hired anyway, according to the letter sent to Day by President David Lowry Swain, because of “the superior manner in which I expect you to execute the work.”
A decade later, Day was hired to build two matching sets of furniture for new meeting halls in New East and New West that remain in use today. Each set consists of three desks and a podium.
At the time, Day owned and operated the state’s largest cabinet shop in Milton. Day’s staff, which included free men and slaves, used steam-powered tools and mass production to fashion fine furniture and architectural trim for wealthy white customers.
But the years leading up to the Civil War marked the beginning of the end for Day’s once-booming business. Records suggest that Day probably died in 1861 – the same year the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. His son, Thomas Day Jr., kept the business going for another decade before selling it in 1871.
Interest in Day’s remarkable life and work was not rekindled until 1943 when the late historian John Hope Franklin highlighted the artisan’s accomplishments in his groundbreaking book, “The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860.”
This past spring, the North Carolina Museum of History returned Day to the spotlight with an exhibit showcasing more than 70 pieces of furniture crafted in his shop, including a desk and podium built for the debating society. The exhibit was organized in conjunction with the publication of a biography of Day, published by the University of North Carolina Press, titled “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color.”