Detail of a mantelpiece by Thomas Day.
Credit: From the video at Crafting Freedom
Thomas Day (1801–ca. 1861) was a successful free black furniture maker and businessman who stood “in the middle” of competing forces in nineteenth-century America: between black and white, slave and free, North and South, and Africa and America. A black man who owned slaves and who also had abolitionist ties in the North, Day embodied the contradictions and complexity of his era, yet he and many other free black men and women in the South as well as the North navigated the labyrinth of race, culture, and power in nineteenth-century America. Not only did they survive, but they increased in number and many helped to “craft freedom” not only for themselves and family members but for other less fortunate members of their race.
Thomas Day remained in the South his entire life. In 1857, a national financial crisis destroyed one in three businesses and Day's furniture shop—the largest in North Carolina—also went into bankruptcy. On the eve of the Civil War, there were 500,000 free blacks living in the United States and this little understood group of antebellum Americans is brought into focus by a study of Thomas Day's life experiences.
This lesson uses Day as a focal point for students to learn about ways that free blacks attained their free status and “crafted freedom” for themselves and others through their craft and entrepreneurial skills, through political activities, through leveraging their social position and contacts, and through their art and creativity.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Grade level standards
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8: Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
A Group in the Middle and Walking the Fragile Color Line
In nineteenth-century America, before Emancipation, whites were on the top rung of the social hierarchy, and African American slaves were on the bottom. Free African Americans or "free people of color” were in the middle. Thomas Day, a cabinetmaker in North Carolina, like all "free men of color," walked a fragile line between the enslaved population that represented the majority of blacks in the South and members of the white community on whom free blacks often relied for patronage and safety. As tensions mounted between slaveholding and free states, free African Americans became a focal point for abolitionist and pro-slavery rhetoric.
Growing Up Free and Black
Thomas Day (1801 to ca. 1861) was born to parents from prominent Virginia black families who had been free since before the American Revolution. Most free blacks before the Revolution were the descendants of white indentured women who had offspring with black men. In the early 19th century, many free black families, including the Days, left Virginia to acquire better farmland but also to escape the increasing number of discriminatory laws targeting free blacks. Some moved North and some even left America for foreign shores. Many free black Virginias moved into North Carolina where there was inexpensive, high-quality farmland. There was a lot of free black migration away from Virginia after the Nat Turner slave rebellion in August of 1831. This revolt left 61 whites dead in Southampton County near the North Carolina border. The immediate result of Turner's rebellion was violent retaliation against African Americans throughout Virginia and even North Carolina. Free blacks were especially targeted. The long-term impact of Turner's insurrection was that every Southern state passed laws restricting free blacks and slaves.
Free Blacks and the Abolitionist Movement
African Americans were the backbone of the abolitionist movement, according to historian Manisha Sinha. One of the most important black abolitionist Southerners was David Walker from Wilmington, North Carolina. Walker’s widely disseminated pamphlet, “The Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World" was a bold call to end slavery immediately by any means necessary. Some free black Southerners had ties with free blacks in the North who actively supported abolitionism. But after Nat Turner's rebellion, black abolitionists in the South “went underground,” and did not re-emerge until after Emancipation. If Day were to openly express anti-slavery views in the South, he risked imprisonment or even death. Day's ties with known abolitionists in Washington, D.C., and his close relationships with the radical abolitionist leaders of Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts, which his three children attended, strongly support the theory that he was a "covert" abolitionist. Local lore in North Carolina claims Day provided assistance for fugitive slaves although his precise activities in support of the anti-slavery cause have yet to be uncovered. It is unlikely he would have been so closely affiliated with anti-slavery activists and so highly regarded by them, were he not himself actively involved in the movement.
Lead a discussion about how Thomas Day “crafted freedom" for himself, his family members and others of his race
Ask students to compare Thomas Day and how he crafted freedom to an enslaved person (like George Moses Horton, Harriet Jacobs, or Elizabeth Keckly, three other nineteenth-century African Americans featured in Crafting Freedom.
Have students do their own research on free blacks during the antebellum period. Using this overview from the Library of Congress.
2 class periods