The Ambiguous Artisan

October 4, 2023

As you arrive at the Thomas Day House and Union Tavern in Milton, North Carolina, population 156, a sign instructs you to call “Twinkle.”

On a Friday morning in June, Twinkle—also known as Vanessa Richmond-Graves—arrives in a 1991 Honda Accord. “Six hundred and four thousand miles, all original parts,” she said proudly.

A barely contained ball of enthusiasm, Richmond-Graves leads a nonprofit committed to restoring the site and running a community museum. She regales visitors with stories of the town’s most famous resident: acclaimed furniture maker Thomas Day.

The Union Tavern, a simple two-story brick rectangle in the Federal style, once held Day’s workshop on the first floor and his family home on the second. Today, the second floor is off-limits, still unrestored after a fire consumed the building in 1989. A large conference table dominates the main room of the first floor; the nonprofit has been renting the building to the town government, so the museum doubles as town hall.

Day’s furniture lines the edges of the room. The bureaus that tower over visitors with their dark woods and stately solidity are imposing, but it’s the delicate details—ornate claw feet, sweeping ogee curves—that capture your attention.

The building may be a small, communally run effort now, but it was the height of North Carolina industry and fashion in the mid-19th century thanks to Day’s work. The Union Tavern shop single-handedly produced almost an eighth of the state’s furniture in 1850. When former North Carolina governor and then U.S. Senator David Settle Reid was looking to furnish his plantation on the Dan River, Day was the only man to turn to—47 pieces in 1855 and another 37 three years later.

Day is renowned for his “exuberant style,” as decorative arts historian Patricia Phillips Marshall and architectural historian Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll described in their 2010 book, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color.

The pieces he made for Reid, many of which are now part of the North Carolina Museum of History’s collection, are indicative. The scholars praised Day’s work as a “playful interaction of positives and negatives” in which “the viewer’s eye is drawn to the fanciful woodcarvings” before it “quickly fixes on the negative spaces.” A pedestal bureau with carved foliage and sweeping mirror supports is “instilled with motion” that is harnessed “with carefully measured symmetry and balance.”

The descriptions of Day’s work double as metaphors for his life: captivating and elusive.

He has been depicted in turns as a political radical, a boisterous figure of Black pride, a conservative entrepreneur, and a sellout. A free man of color, Day became a wealthy, accomplished businessman and artist in a society that went to war to prove its belief that its Black citizens weren’t worthy of freedom.

But Day didn’t only survive the slave economy—he used it. The 1850 census lists 14 enslaved people working in Day’s shop, home, and farm. At the same time, evidence suggests Day had ties to abolitionists, and many believe his slave owning was nothing more than cover to survive a world that targeted men of his race. That evidence, however, is contested, and neglect of African American history in archives and academia leaves the accounting of Day’s life incomplete. An example of Thomas Day’s woodwork. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

For decades, it fell to women like Richmond-Graves to nurture instead. A lifelong Milton resident, Richmond-Graves grew up back when the town had a general store and a mercantile selling hoop cheese and penny candies. She was a curious child who used to spend afternoons with the town’s unofficial historian, a white teacher named Mary Satterfield.

“She would just tell my dad, ‘Earl, leave Twinkle with me for a little bit. I want to tell her more about Thomas Day,’” Richmond-Graves remembered. “About 11 or 12, she told me, ‘One day, you’re going to be talking to people from all over the United States, and maybe abroad, about Thomas Day.’ Of course, at 12, I’m going, ‘Yeah, right.’ But she prophesied that, and it’s true.”

As Day’s reputation grew to include collectors and museums, it attracted more scrutiny from the professionals. While Richmond-Graves is an avid believer in Day the abolitionist, Marshall and Leimenstoll downplayed those ties in their book. They present him as a profit-maximizing businessman, through and through. Inside Day’s home and tavern in Milton. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

Released in conjunction with a 2010 exhibit at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of History that Marshall curated, the book was the high-water mark in Day scholarship. It also demanded proof that volunteer community historians couldn’t readily provide. Perhaps no one could.

Many Day devotees are still harshly critical of the book and exhibit, both because of the interpretive disagreements and because of what they see as other inaccuracies. Even a statue of Day at the Museum of History is an invention: There aren’t any known photographs of him, so the likeness is merely an artist’s interpretation.

In July 2022, the General Assembly provided $800,000 for the state of North Carolina to turn Day’s workshop into a state historic site, and Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2023-25 budget proposal included another $4.8 million. But the sale of the property is not yet final. Once it is, the story of Thomas Day will be told by state employees and bureaucrats rather than devoted community volunteers.

As the teaching of Black history has become a hot-button issue within and beyond North Carolina, so too has the effort to tell the complicated story of Day’s unique life. Whether we see Day as a hero, villain, or something in between becomes a test of whether we can confront the complexities of American racism.

Read the rest at The Assembly.