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In the decades before the Civil War, it was a mark of distinction for a wealthy tobacco farmer to own furniture made by a North Carolinian named Thomas Day.

There's now renewed interest in this master craftsman - in part because of the quality of his work, but also because he was a black man who own slaves.

Fred Wasser has his story.

FRED WASSER: Thomas Day crafted fine woodwork that still adorns North Carolina buildings today - including this one in Yanceyville.

Ms. JO LEIMENSTOLL (Historic Preservationist): We're at the Bartlett Yancey House. Bartlett Yancey was a congressman and also a state legislator in North Carolina, a very prominent political figure here in Caswell County.

WASSER: Historic preservationist Jo Leimenstoll. She's the co-author of the new book about Thomas Day. Day's workshop produced sofas, dressers, bookcases, tables, chairs, also architectural ornamentation: fireplace mantels, scrollwork along doors and moldings.

Ms. LEIMENSTOLL: This is the center hall, and it contains the staircase to the second floor. And greeting the guests would be this serpentine, S-shaped newel post - very bold, very chunky, very fluid, very energetic in form with a sweeping handrail leading up to the landing of the staircase suggesting that the gentility continues even onto the second floor.

WASSER: Thomas Day received commissions from a former governor and a big order from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Day's method was to take designs that were popular up North and add his own touches -such as that S-shaped newel post.

Some of Day's woodwork is now on display at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.

Pat Marshall curated the exhibition and co-wrote the new book on Day.

Ms. PAT MARSHALL (Curator): He was an entrepreneur, and that he took advantage of every opportunity that was presented to him.

WASSER: Day's success is that much more remarkable because it was the antebellum South, and he was black - mixed race, actually, light-skinned, not a slave - but a free black who nevertheless had to live with danger and uncertainty about the future. The laws changed all the time. His influential white customers protected him to a point.

And there's another twist to the story. Even though some of his workers were paid journeymen, Thomas Day also owned slaves - 14 according to the 1850 census.

Again, Pat Marshall.

Ms. MARSHALL: There was a small percentage of free people who did own slaves during that time. It was not unheard of, but it was not common.

WASSER: It was complicated, says Peter Wood, who taught American history at Duke University for four decades.

Mr. PETER WOOD: I think there's a great misunderstanding about what it means for people to own slaves. If you are an African-American opposed to slavery but engaged in business with wealthy white planters in North Carolina, the best cover, if you will, for the workers that you have with you is to call them slaves.

WASSER: Sometimes, it was a way of keeping a family together - yours or someone else's.

Mr. WOOD: Very often, blacks purchased other blacks as a way either to buy their freedom or to assure their safety until freedom arrived in some other form.

WASSER: Some say that Thomas Day was a secret abolitionist. Others are saying Thomas Day owned slaves simply because it was good business. Even though he was black, the argument goes, he still had furniture to turn out - and slave labor fueled the South's economy. There's a revival of interest in Thomas Day right now and a lot of debate among scholars about his role as a businessman and slave owner.

Ms. CAROLYN BOONE: He was in the business of rescuing slaves, and I want to clarify that.

WASSER: Carolyn Boone is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Day.

We're standing in front of the Union Tavern in Milton, North Carolina. They bought the building in 1848 and turned it into his workshop and his home. Many of his workers lived here too. Carolyn Boone believes that Day treated his slaves like family. That is, tailors made their clothes, that they all sat down to the dinner table together and prayed together. In her view, many of the answers about the enigmatic Thomas Day are embedded in the stories that were passed down in her family.

Ms. BOONE: There's a lot of conversation going on about him being a black slave owner and what that meant, and a lot of conjecture about why he owned slaves and without really knowing - without having anything in writing, it's difficult to determine. But oral history is very potent and very important, especially when you're dealing with families of color, because often that's all there is. If he wanted to be in the practice of using slaves, he could have had hundreds. He only had a few. And according to our family lore, he purchased these slaves to rescue them.

WASSER: In 1857, the economy collapsed, and Day's business went bankrupt. As a black man, he was not able to collect from his white creditors. But Day and his son reorganized, and to some extent, his business was able to recover. Thomas Day died about four years later, just as the Civil War was beginning.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Wasser.

SIEGEL: And you can find more about Thomas Day and see photos of his work at our website, npr.org.

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