A Look At Thomas Day, African American Furniture Maker

In her book Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, North Carolina Museum of History curator Patricia Marshall calls Thomas Day “one of the fathers of the North Carolina furniture industry.” Day, a free African American in the nineteenth century, owned one of the largest pre-Civil War cabinet shops in North Carolina. Many of his pieces are intact today, and his influences on both the furniture industry and the civil rights movement are profound.

More than a year ago, the North Carolina Museum of History opened their exhibit Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker. The opening coincided with the publication of Marshall’s book, released on May 22nd, 2010, by the UNC Press, which can be found in the North Carolina Collection as well as UNC’s Art Library. The exhibit was scheduled to be on display for nine months, but has gained so much attention that it has been extended until the fall. Day’s work has also been displayed at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History in Virginia.

The exhibit includes over seventy of Day’s pieces, including a podium and desk from UNC’s own Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies. Some of the other items included are tables and chairs, and a pine wardrobe. There is also an interactive portion – visitors can turn the wheel lathe and experiment with tools in a workshop recreation. It is free and open to the public, and worth seeing for those in the area.

The North Carolina Collection and other UNC libraries contain many resources on Day and his work, including a large number of electronic books. These resources range from biographies to discussion of his cultural influence. Patricia Marshall has also written an article on Thomas Day and what it meant to be an African-American artist, published in the North Carolina Historical Review in 2001.

Other resources on Thomas Day and his work include the North Carolina Museum of History website, the Raleigh News and Observer, UNC-TV, and NPR.

The view south from West 43rd Street

The New Yorker’s supercilious first mention of North Carolina in 1925 proved to be typical of those for decades to come:

“The depressing motto of the Charlotte Theatre, Charlotte, North Carolina, is ‘Attend the Movies Regularly. In No Other Way Can You Get So Close to Life for So Little.’ ”

— Aug. 30, 1947

“Overheard in the Metropolitan Museum, a lady in front of Whistler’s ‘Mother: Arrangement in Grey and Black’ (speaking in a deep Southern drawl): ‘I don’t see why there’s all this fuss about Whistler’s mother. She’s just one of those old McNeills from North Carolina.’ ”

— May 1, 1954

“The Sears, Roebuck store in Charlotte, North Carolina, recently advertised ‘Plastic-like Leather Handbags.’ ”

— April 15, 1961

My bedside stack of  New Yorkers (with blow-in cards in situ) is as high as anyone’s, but the editors’ dismissive depiction of pre-Sun Belt  Southerners often made me wince…. OK, sometimes I also laughed.