Ok, this post is kind of one of those rambling kind, but the gist of it is a review of the Thomas Day exhibit at the NC Museum of History and ongoing research into free persons of color who owned slaves.
This past Thursday I was in Raleigh, speaking to the Capt. Samuel A. Ashe Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (and I had a wonderful time). Since I did not speak until the evening hours, I spent most of the afternoon at the State library digging out resources for one of my new books. Before I headed over to the archives, I visited the history museum. I usually stop by to see what interesting War-related pieces they have on exhibit. I also noticed that the new exhibit on Thomas Day, a free person of color who was a master cabinet and furniture maker, was open. (I reconnected with Randall Jones, author of In the Footsteps of Daniel Boone while at the Museum).
The Thomas Day exhibit occupies what I would consider the main exhibit hall at the museum. Day lived in Caswell County and built furniture for many years prior to the War. Those interested more in the material culture of the time period will be rewarded with different types of furniture, from the plain to the ornate. There are 70 pieces of furniture made by Day’s shop in Milton. Plus, the Museum has recreated Day’s woodworking machine shop. There are also some great audio visual presentations to go along with the exhibit. The Museum of History has gone an extra step, and pulled out numerous pieces from its collection from the time period, like wedding dresses and militia frock coats.
It was also great to see that the fact that Day was a free person of color who owned slaves was not glossed over. (Is Thomas Day one of the most famous black slave owners?)
If you get a chance, visit the North Carolina Museum of History and check out the “Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker” exhibit. You can learn more by checking out this link here or here.
Thomas Day was not alone in the ownership of slaves by a free person of color. I recently began exploring this topic with the acquisition of my own copy of John Hope Franklin’s The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860. In 1830, Thomas Day was just one of 190 free persons of color to own slaves. He was reported as owning just two slaves. Some of Day’s contemporaries in 1830 owned considerable chattel: Jonathan Critchion of Martin County owned 24; Charles Mallett of Cumberland County owned 36; and, Gooden Bowen of Bladen County owned 44 slaves.
The question that I am hoping that Franklin’s book answers for me is this: why did the number of free persons of color in North Carolina who owned slaves drop from 190 in 1830 to just eight in 1860? Maybe Franklin’s book will clear this up for me.