Thomas Day was born to free black parents in Dinwiddie County, Virginia around 1801. His father was John Day Sr., a farmer and skilled cabinet worker and his mother was Mounring Stewart, the daughter of free mulatto Thomas Stewarts, who owned a large and successful plantation I Dinwiddie County, Virginia. John day married Mounring Stewart around 1795-1796, and they two had sons: John Day Jr. born 1797; and Thomas Day.
Day’s early years was spent following his father’s footsteps in the cabinetry craft and from an early age he displayed proficiency in woodwork. In 1823, Day had followed his older brother to Milton, North Carolina. The brothers worked together in the furniture business and immediately were successful. By 1825 John Day Jr. left the Milton and the furniture business, leaving the cabinetry business solely to Thomas. John Day Jr. would later emigrate to Liberia, and become one the founding fathers of the Republic of Liberia. He served as Chief Justice, and was one of the first people to sign the Liberian Declaration of Independence.
In 1827, Day appeared for the first time on the tax list in North Carolina as a property owner. And, over the years he increased his property holding. On January 6, 1830 Thomas Day married Aquilla Wilson in Halifax County, Virginia. Aquilla Wilson was born in Halifax, Virginia in 1806. The couple had three (possibly four) children: Mary Ann, born 1831; Devereaux, born 1833; Thomas Jr., born 1837; and possibly a daughter, Aquilla, born 1835 named after her mother. Thomas Day and Aquilla had difficulty in becoming married, for example: Day was confronted for marrying a free black woman from Virginia (a restrictive law, forbidden by North Carolina). Day responded by suggesting that he would move himself and his shop to Virginia. Prominent white citizens, including states attorney general, had the North Carolina Legislature pas a special bill exempting Mr. and Mrs. Day from the law’s provision’s.
Within a decade Day had established himself as one of the South’s most famous and celebrated furniture craftsmen. Day’s furniture-making business employed the use of both black slaves and white apprentices, despite the general belief that Day (as a free man) was of lower social stature than his white apprentices. His work was widely recognized and he became sought after by plantation owners, whose homes he embellished with stylish mantle pieces and stair railings, in addition to provide them with furniture. He would craft pieces for two of North Carolina’s governors and was awarded a commission to furnish the interior woodwork of one of the original buildings of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Day and his family was members of the Milton Presbyterian Church, but was not allowed to sit on the main floor, which was for the white members only. Thomas Day traded building pews for the church in return for his family to be able to sit in the main portion of the sanctuary. In 1841, Mr. and Mrs. Day were accepted as full members of the church.
Day owned his place of business and residence, add a brick addition to contain his workshop. Today this is the historic Union Tavern or Yellow Tavern in Milton. He became a major stockholder in the State Bank of North Carolina. He also owned significant real estate beyond Milton. He carried furniture for the wealthy, but he did not just make furniture. He created mantles, stairs, windows, door frames, newel post, and other decorative and functional trim. His operative became one of the largest furniture/cabinetmaking business in North Carolina, at one time he was able to employ twelve laborers.
In the late 1850s, Day’s business suffered financial setbacks. A national panic in 1857 caused widespread financial difficulties from which Day did not escape. Moreover, he was faced with increasing restrictions on what he was allowed to do as a free black. By the end of the decade, Day’s business was in receivership, and the court named his friend and business partner Dabney Terry as trustee for the property, which included his house and shop, tools, steam engines, rental properties, wagons, furniture inventory, teams, harnesses, and six slaves. The court gave him until December 1859 to settle is accounts. Thomas Day, Jr., executed a note for his father’s debts, and the property was returned to him, but still under the eye of a court-appointed trustee. Thomas, Jr., continued the business through the Civil War and well into Reconstruction, selling out in 1871 and leaving Milton.
Given the time in which Day lived, what he accomplice was remarkable, however, he was a remarkable man. In 1861, Thomas Day disappeared from the Milton public records, and it is possible that he died that year. This death year
is supported by Milton locals. He is buried near Milton on private property that he once owned. For many years only a pile of stones marked his grave. However, a suitable monument now memorializes the site.