The home of Thomas Day, a free black woodworker in the pre-Civil War era, is restored.

Thomas Day, a free black man who was one of North Carolina’s premier woodworkers in pre-Civil War days, probably would gasp at the prices his furniture now commands. In 1829, he offered in an ad, “The most fashionable and common BED STEADS, and he would be glad to sell very low...” Most recently, a sofa, which he called a lounge, brought $36,000 at auction.

Day offered his wealthy customers, including the North Carolina governor and the state university, the styles popular in Baltimore and Philadelphia, but at half the price. In 1850, his was the state’s largest shop, with a staff of 12 comprising whites, free blacks and his own slaves. With its steam-powered equipment, his shop is now considered a forerunner of the Southern furniture industry.

Day’s former home and shop, which he established in the former Union Tavern in Milton, NC, near the Virginia line, was badly damaged by a fire that hit the then-private home in 1989. Since then, history buffs and furniture lovers have raised $1 million to restore the 1818 building. Contributors include the National Parks Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which gave a matching grant of $500,000; Craftique Furniture of Mebane, NC, which came out with a Thomas Day line and donated part of the proceeds; and individual donors including Day descendants and the late Maud Gatewood, a nationally known artist and area native. A likeness of the building, drawn by Gatewood, decorates Christmas cards, caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts sold by restoration supporters.

The final few dollars of the $1 million came in late last year, and the restored Thomas Day House/Union Tavern will open one room at an as-yet-undetermined date this summer. It will display more than 20 pieces of Day furniture. The North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, whose 50 pieces are the largest Day collection, is planning its own exhibit, probably for 2008. And there is a Thomas Day book in the works by museum staff members.

The grass-roots efforts to restore Day’s home brings to mind the reaction of Milton residents in 1829 when state law against black immigration prevented Day’s new bride, a Virginian, from joining him. Sixty-one residents and the state’s Attorney General successfully petitioned the legislature to admit Mrs. Day. On Sundays, the Day family joined their white neighbors in worship at the Presbyterian Church in Milton, where Day built the pews that are still used today.

First Presbyterian Church in Milton, NC, still uses the pews built by a free black woodworker, Thomas Day, before the Civil War. He and his family were members of the otherwise white church. Photo courtesy of NC Museum of History.

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