The elegant Grand Salon was the setting for a panel discussion on the many lives and interests of Thomas Day, the subject of the Renwick Gallery’s, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. Day, a carpenter by training, learned the art from his father and became the most famous craftsman in North Carolina, in the years before the Civil War. His work is both fluid and idiosyncratic, and he created furniture as well as architectural and decorative motifs for the region's elite and mercantile middle class. Born in 1801, Day lived in an increasingly difficult period in our country's history. How did a free man of color attain such a prominent place in society when the country was to become greatly divided in the years leading up to the Civil War? The four panelists John W. Franklin, Donna Day, James L. Roark, and Michael A. Ausbon, helped to answer that question and let us in on Day's art, family, the times he lived in, and how one man could carve out an extraordinary life for himself.
John Whittington Franklin, senior program manager at the National Museum of African American Art and Culture moderated the discussion and, to get things started, told some fascinating stories about his own father, distinguished scholar John Hope Franklin, to whom the exhibition's notable catalogue is dedicated. As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s, the senior Franklin traveled to North Carolina to work on his dissertation about free men of color in North Carolina, but, as a black man, he was not allowed to sit in the main research area. Instead, he was given his own small room, a cart for books, and a key to the stacks. That is, until researchers in the main room complained about Franklin being given preferential treatment. Segregation and division by race was not limited to Thomas Day's era. Interestingly, when Franklin hired a professional typist to work on his dissertation, to their joint amazement, they discovered that she had been typing on a table made by Thomas Day.
Family member Donna Day discussed the importance of education in the Day household, a legacy that has been passed down through the generations. Thomas Day and his wife, Aquila, made sure that their three children were educated in all the arts, and were sent to the Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts. Day, himself, was educated in Quaker schools, and helped to give him entry into the higher echelons of society. James L. Roark, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of American History at Emory University, painted a picture of the time, and the precarious dance Thomas Day had to practice each day as a free man of color in a white society. "He was a complicated man in a complicated time—a free black in a world dedicated to slavery." Day, prosperous until an 1857 bank failure, was also the owner of fourteen slaves at the height of his business. Day's skills outside of the shop, what Roark referred to as, "negotiating racial etiquette everyday of his life," proved just as vital to his survival as his unmatched skills inside the shop.
Those skills as a master craftsman were described by Michael A. Ausbon, associate curator of decorative arts at the North Carolina Museum of History. Ausbon took us inside Day's workshop and showed us the elements typical of Day's pieces which were in demand and deemed the best made in North Carolina. Often characterized by undulating shapes, fluid lines and spirals, Roark talked about Day's "forms and the playful balance between positive and negative spaces," which seemed appropriate for a free man of color who had to perform a delicate balancing act his entire life.
Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color remains on view at the Renwick through July 28, 2013.