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Renwick features African-American pioneer

An exhibit examining the career of Thomas Day, a free African-American who owned and operated one of North Carolina’s most success cabinet shops prior to the Civil War, will be on display from April 28 through July 28 at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Day's work includes this walnut lounge.

The exhibition, “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color,” will feature 36 furniture pieces produced in Day’s Milton shop from 1830-1860. A majority are on loan from the North Carolina Museum of History, which has the largest collection of Day’s furniture.

Day’s architectural work will be featured in photographs, while the exhibit will also explore his astounding success as a cabinetmaker during a time when most blacks were enslaved and free blacks were restricted in their movements and activities.

Day's open pillar bureau.

According to the Caswell County (N.C.) Historical Association, Day was born in 1801 to free black parents in Virginia’s Dinwiddie County. His father and brother were also skilled cabinetmakers and the brothers briefly worked together in Milton. Day carried a standard line of furniture and built custom furniture for the wealthy. He created mantels, stairs, window and door frames, newel posts and other decorative and functional trim. His operation became one of the largest woodworking businesses in North Carolina, at one time employing 12 laborers.

The exhibit is based on a 2011 show organized by the North Carolina Museum of History. It is accompanied by a book of the same title ($42; The University of North Carolina Press) by Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll.

The Renwick Gallery is located at 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. at 17th St. For information, call 202-633-7970 or visit

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue.

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