Black History Month Spotlight — Free Black Slave Owner Thomas Day
NC Museum of History Honors Free-Black Slave Owner Thomas Day
Thomas Day was born in 1801 at Dinwiddie, Virginia to free black parents, who moved to Warren County, North Carolina between 1817-1820. There father John Day obtained employment with master cabinetmaker Thomas Reynolds who trained he and his sons John, Jr. and Thomas. The sons would move to nearby Milton, North Carolina in 1823 to open their own cabinet shop, and by 1825 Thomas was sole owner. Thomas became a well-known and expert cabinet maker in his own right, purchasing two African slaves in 1830 to work under him and at least three, perhaps as many as fourteen, by the late 1850’s. The economic panic of 1857 sent Day into bankruptcy and perhaps forcing the sale of his slaves to raise funds.
He died in 1861 and is buried in Milton, North Carolina.
Free-Black and Slave Artisans in North Carolina: (from http://www.cfhi.net/BellamyMansionAntebellumMasterpiece.php)
The existence of free-black craftsmen in antebellum North Carolina came from slaves who had been taught a trade by their owners, such as that of carpentry, masonry or cabinetry — and often these owners did not have enough work on the plantation to keep them employed year round. Neighbors might hire the slave-craftsmen and the practice arose of permitting such slaves to go about the country looking for work.
The slave would carry a written statement to that effect, sort of a license to work at large. Slaves would often bargain with their owners and agree to pay him a certain sum each year in return for the privilege of working whenever they chose, called “hiring his time.” This could ultimately lead to the skilled and often-employed slave to earn sufficient funds to purchase his own freedom, and to purchase his own slaves. (Antebellum North Carolina, Guion Griffis Johnson, page 531)
Understandably, all slaves did not show the ability for skilled trades and “only the most likely were taught a trade. The ordinary procedure in teaching a slave a profession was to bring him up under the tutelage of a slave craftsman or apprentice him to a free radesman. [Those slaves thought ingenious were bound] to some carpenter or bricklayer.” (ANC, Page 541)
These skilled free-black craftsman and tradesmen “were barbers, tailors, tanners, brick makers, carpenters, brick and stone masons, cabinet makers, caterers, blacksmiths and shoemakers,” and they often purchased their own black slaves to help in their businesses (ANC, page 607). The census of 1830 listed 192 free-blacks in North Carolina who owned from one to 41 slaves, while almost half of that number, 92, owned only one (ANC, page 607).
By 1860, there were twenty-four free Negro mechanics plying their trade in North Carolina. Very few of the skilled occupations were without some free Negroes, and many came to be looked upon as efficient and dependable. Free-black Joseph Dennis of Fayetteville, was described by a white citizen as “a mechanic of considerable skill and has frequently been in my employ.” His relative Phillis Dennis owned 4 slaves herself in 1830.
John Caruthers Stanly, a free-black in New Bern, was one of the leading barbers of the community and he “used the profits which he earned at this occupation as his initial investment in plantations and town property, making him one of the wealthiest men and slave owners in Craven County,” owning 14 slaves in 1830. Known as “Barber Jack,” Stanly was said at one time to be worth more than $40,000. His son, John Stewart Stanly, born a slave, was emancipated in 1802 and by 1830 owned eighteen slaves himself. Donom Mumford, a free-black brick mason of New Bern, owned ten slaves whom he employed in his business. (The Free Negro in NC, John Hope Franklin, Page 608)
Free blacks experienced little difficulty in securing employment in North Carolina in the building trades. Masons, brick makers, and stone dressers were in demand in North Carolina’s growing towns, and the protestations of white workers were not strong enough to cause a ban to be placed on the use of free Negro workers in these trades. Free-black slave owner John Y. Green, who owned 4 slaves in 1830, was a well-to-do carpenter and contractor in New Bern who amassed a considerable fortune by securing large jobs in connection with the building programs of his hometown. It was largely through his own industry that James D. Sampson was able to become a respected and wealthy citizen in Wilmington. Almost 500 free-blacks [in North Carolina] made their living in the building trades in 1860.”
Certainly there were free-blacks who possessed slaves for the purpose of advancing their own economic well-being and free-black slaveholders were more interested in making their farms or carpenter-shops “pay” than they were in treating their slaves humanely. The capitalistic-minded free Negro owners of slaves can usually be identified because of their extensive holdings of realty and because of their inactivity in the manumission movement. For thirty years, Thomas Day (of Milton, North Carolina) used slaves to help him in his cabinetmaking business. In 1830, he had two slaves; by 1860 he had three, and possibly as many as fourteen.
And large numbers of slaves owned by free-blacks were not unusual: eleven slaves were held in bondage by Samuel Johnston of Bertie County in 1790; the 44 slaves each owned by Gooden Bowen of Bladen County and John Walker of New Hanover County in 1830; and the 24 slaves owned by John Crichlon of Martin County in 1830. “Free Negroes usually held one, two, or three slaves…"These free-blacks in New Hanover County owned more than one slave in 1830: Mary Cruise, 3; Leuris Pajay, 4; John Walker, 44; Roger Hazell, 5; James Campbell, 2; and Henry Sampson who owned 5 black slaves. (The Free Negro in North Carolina, pp. 140-141)