Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Man in the Middle: Thomas Day and the Free Black Experience

Created December 3, 2014


The Lesson


Thomas Day mantlepiece detail

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.

Guiding Questions

  • How is Thomas Day’s experience reflective of the free black experience?
  • Why do you think successful free African Americans would have been concerned about helping the enslaved attain their freedom?

Learning Objectives

  • Recall who Thomas Day was and list critical facts about his life
  • Recall several strategies free blacks used to deal with their second-class citizenship
  • Compare and contrast how Thomas Day crafted freedom—enhanced the freedoms and opportunities for himself, his family, and members of his racewith strategies used by other 19th-century blacks such as those found on the Crafting Freedom website

College and Career Readiness Standards

Anchor standard

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.

Preparation and Resources

  • Review the Brief Biography of Thomas Day.
  • Review the short video overview of Day’s life and work, Who Was Thomas Day? Be prepared to show this video to your students along with the questions for active viewing.
  • Review the Thomas Day Timeline that highlights significant events in the life and times of Thomas Day.
  • Review Crafting Freedom: How Did They Do It? This document compares the way that slaves and free blacks “crafted freedom” for themselves, their families, and other members of their race.
  • Review the Assessment Answer Sheet.


Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Thomas Day and the Free Black Experience
  • To begin this lesson, show the short video Who Was Thomas Day? after distributing the question sheet to engage students in this man, his story and his work. Have students volunteer to answer these questions after viewing.
  • Using the Brief Biography of Thomas Day, the overview of free blacks in the antebellum period, the information in Day’s video, and the Thomas Day Timeline, provide students with a brief overview of Day and his experiences of a free black in the nineteenth century. Have each student develop their own questions about Day, his craft and his world. Have other students answer them.
  • Explain that “crafting freedom” refers to the way enslaved and free black people strove to enhance opportunities and freedoms for themselves and their family members through various actions. Distribute the Brief Biography of Thomas Day and Crafting Freedom: How Did They Do It? Use the questions at the end of the hand-out "Crafting Freedom: How They Did It" to ensure students understand of the concept of Crafting Freedom."
  • Ask students to identify five words from the texts that signify “crafting freedom” and explain their choices.

Lead a discussion about how Thomas Day “crafted freedom" for himself, his family members and others of his race


  • Ask students to write a short, well-organized essay about Day that speaks his contribution to "crafting freedom." They must include at least one example of how he crafted freedom for himself; one example of how he crafted freedom for his children, and one example of how he crafted freedom for members of his race.


Extending The Lesson

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.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Crafting Freedom
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Laurel Sneed (NC)