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Black Woodworkers of the 18th and 19th Centuries

"We must deconstruct and rid ourselves of the coon, the mammy, and the pickininny and embrace and acknowledge the carpenter, the seamstress, and the silversmith."

- Derrick Beard, from Sankofa: A Celebration of African-American Arts and Crafts, 1790-1930

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Back around 2010, I stumbled across a reference to the African-American cabinetmaker, Thomas Day. As someone who assumed antebellum Blacks were limited to being field workers or servants, I was intrigued by his story. Additional investigation led to the realization that there were thousands of Black artisans during the era - male and female, free and enslaved.

The early American economy was heavily dependent on enslaved craftsmen to produce things for the slaveholder's personal needs and generate income when they were hired out. Some slaveholders even carried insurance on skilled workers to protect their financial interests if they escaped or died. And free Blacks of the era, though not enslaved, faced their own challenges and were often subjected to restrictive laws and/or outright hostility.

Most of these craftsmen are lost to history, but not all. Here are those I've learned of who worked with wood. Some of their stories are inspirational, others tragic. All deserve telling.


Note: much of this information was originally on my old Comcast-based website which was mothballed many years ago. 

Warning: This page contains verbiage taken directly from personal quotes or historic records and therefore reflective of the times.


Anderson, Samuel "Sambo" (c1760-1845): Samuel Anderson was an enslaved carpenter at George Washington's plantation, Mount Vernon. Born in Africa, he was described in an 1876 reminiscence published in the Virginia Gazette as, "a genuine Guinea negro, claimed to have come from a Royal family. He was of a bright mahogany color, with high cheek bones, and was stoutly made. His face was tattooed, and he wore in his ears rings which he informed me were made of real Guinea gold." Anderson helped build and repair plows, carts, wheels, door and window frames, boats, and coffins. He also worked with other enslaved craftsmen to construct the wooden mantle in the mansion's dining room. 

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, he married Agnes, an enslaved field worker on the plantation; together they had seven children who were also enslaved. Per Washington's will, he was manumitted in 1801, but remained living on the property as his wife and children were part of Martha (Custis) Washington's estate, and therefore not subject to the terms of his will. Samuel was a talented hunter and fisherman, and supported himself by supplying the local residents and hotels with game. It was said that at the time of Nat Turner's insurrection, an order was issued to collect all firearms from the "negroes in Fairfax County," but that the soldier allowed the somewhat elderly Anderson to keep his beloved flintlock in order to continue hunting. Anderson was was well respected, and ultimately managed to purchase freedom for some of his children and grandchildren.

Andrews, William Wallace (c1817-1865): At the age of four, William Wallace Andrews was given to Senator Chester and Mary Ashley of Little Rock, Arkansas as a wedding present. Mrs. Ashley, who was of Puritan descent, gave him his own room, taught him to read and write, and had him tutored with her own children. Highly intelligent, he became their butler as well as a skilled pianist, gardener, and cabinetmaker. He hired himself out and operated a furniture-making business, often in conjunction with fellow slave, Asa Richmond. He was freed in 1863 and, after Little Rock fell to Union forces, opened a school for freedmen, served as intermediary between the Army and black refugees, was ordained a Methodist minister, and made vice-chairman of the 1865 Suffrage Convention.

Ball, George (born c1793): George Ball is listed as a "coloured" plane maker operating at 109 Mercer St., New York City in Longworth's City Directory of 1827 and Trow's New York City Directory of 1857. The 1850 federal census identifies him as a 57 year old plane maker, born in New Jersey.


Barjon, Dutreuil (c1799-after 1856): Dutreuil Barjon was a free Black, born in Santo Domingo (now Haiti), who came to New Orleans with his mother in 1813. Apprenticed to the Black cabinetmaker, Jean Rousseau (see entry), he became one of the most successful artisans of the era. He opened his own shop at 279 Royal St. in the French Quarter in 1822, making Grecian-style furniture. An advertisement in the 1834 Michel's New Orleans City Directory stated the shop offered "to the public a large assortment of furniture made in this city, and in the newest and most fashionable style." He later sold a line of furniture he designed and imported from Germany. Barjon began having financial difficulties mid-century and, in 1856, escaped his creditors by fleeing to France with his mistress.

Photo courtesy of Grand View Antiques and Auctions


Barjon, Dutreuil, Jr. (1823-1870): A talented cabinetmaker in his own right, Dutreuil Barjon Jr. is identified as a carpenter-joiner in New Orleans business directories of the 1840s, working for and managing his father's shop. He acquired the business in 1855 and is said to have kept it going until 1867. Interestingly, an 1866 tax assessment list identifies D. Barjon of Royal St. as a furniture repairer, not cabinetmaker.

Photo used under license from The Louisiana State Museum


Beaty, Powhatan (1837–1916): Powhatan Beaty was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, moved to Cincinnati in 1849, attended school, and became interested in theatre. After graduation he was apprenticed to a black cabinetmaker and worked as a turner while continuing his theatrical training. He gained his freedom in 1861 and served in the 5th United States Colored Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Beaty received the Congressional Medal of Honor for taking command of his company during the battle of Chaffin's Farm after all the officers were either killed or wounded. After the war he resumed his career as a turner and worked in local theatre as an actor, director and playwright. He turned professional during the 1880s, touring with the African-American actress, Henrietta Vinton Davis, performing Shakespeare and other roles in venues such as Ford's Theatre in Washington DC.


Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress

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Bell, James: James Bell, an enslaved carpenter from Charlottesville, Virginia, was brought to Huntsville, Alabama around 1830 to design and build three spiral staircases in the Watkins-Moore-Rhett mansion.

Photo by Robin McDonald and used by permission of Alabama Heritage magazine

Child's furniture made by enslaved man

Ben: The doll cradle and child's chair shown here were made for Virginia Stone in 1843 by a man named Ben, who was enslaved by her grandfather, Jordan Edwards of Sussex Courthouse, Virginia.


Photo courtesy of The American Civil War Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Berry, James (born 1853): James Berry was a chairmaker who worked in central Tennessee.

Berry, Reuben: In 1825, shopowners Willis Cowling and John Turpin of Richmond, Virginia manumitted Reuben Berry, an enslaved cabinetmaker. Cowling owned one of the first shops in Richmond to employ African-American cabinetmakers, something that angered local white journeymen and led to an attempted boycott by Richmond's Society of Journeymen Cabinet Makers in 1832. The following quote highlights the animosity, "... those who would... depreciate a free white man's labor and... place it in competition with that of a negro slave... are well met and well matched."

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Bowman, James Jr.: On 28 February 1846, John W. Baker of Fayetteville, North Carolina offered a reward of fifty dollars for the return of, "... my negro man JAMES, commonly called James Bowman, Jr., by trade a Cabinet Maker... a very dark mulatto, 28 years of age, about 5 feet 8 inches high... stout and well made, with a stiff beard... [has] a very peculiar expression of his eyes... is very cunning and plausible, can read and write... may have provided himself with a forged pass or free papers..."

Henry Boyd bedstead
Henry Boyd stamp

Boyd, Henry (1802-1886): Henry Boyd  was born into slavery in Carlisle, Kentucky, the son of a white man and enslaved woman. Trained as a carpenter, he earned enough money to purchase his freedom in 1826 and move to Cincinnati. Initially refused a job because of his race, he eventually obtained work as an assistant for a white house builder. By 1835 he had purchased freedom for the rest of his family and saved over $3000.  He invented a corded bed known as The Boyd Bedstead, a forerunner of modern bed frames, which was patented in 1833 under the name of George Porter, a White cabinetmaker and friend, possibly to avoid the obstacles faced by many black inventors. He opened his bedstead manufactory in 1839, employing six men, five of whom were White. When other manufacturers copied his bedstead design, he began stamping every bed produced in his shop. Boyd was extremely successful, ultimately employing as many as 50 workers, black and white. His firm delivered over 1000 beds in 1844 alone and opened a showroom in 1855. He was an active member of the Underground Railroad and reportedly had a hiding place in his house for runaway slaves. His business declined at the start of the Civil War and ceased operations in 1863. After the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, Boyd became active in local politics, supported the Republican Party, was the initial chairman for the 13th Ward, and worked for the reelection of Ulysses S. Grant. One of Boyd's bedsteads is in the collection of The Smithsonian Institution, and a children's book about him by Whitney LB Miller has been published by Lost Art Press.

Bedstead photos courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution, Museum of African American History and Culture

Photo of Henry Boyd in the public domain

Henry Boyd (1802-1886)
Henry Boyd factgory ad

Brown, Hale (born 1828): Hale Brown was a chairmaker who worked in Williamson County, Tennessee.

Brown, Solomon G. (c1829-1906): Solomon Brown, a child of former slaves, was born in Washington DC. When his father died in 1832 the family was left destitute and as a result, he never received a formal education. At the age of fifteen he began working for Samuel Morse, assisting in the installation of the first telegraph line. In 1852 he became the first African-American employee of the Smithsonian Institution when he was hired to make exhibit cases. By 1864 he was a museum assistant and in 1869 became the registrar in charge of animal specimens. Completely self-taught, Brown became an expert naturalist, illustrator, lecturer and poet. He was active in the black community, serving as a trustee of Wilberforce University and the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. He founded the Pioneer Sabbath School, was president of the National Union League, and served three consecutive one-year terms as a member of the House of Delegates under the Territorial Government of the District of Columbia.

Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian Insitution


Buckner, Lewis C. (c1856-1924): Born into slavery, Lewis Buckner had a White father and Black mother. After the Civil War, he was apprenticed to a white furniture maker named Christian Stump. He established his own cabinetmaking business in the 1870s and opened a shop in Sevierville, Tennessee on what is now Douglas Dam Road. He later branched out into house building, constructing many houses in Sevier County with Italianate and Queen Anne elements. He usually worked alone and often lived on the site during construction. His cabinetmaking skills led to the incorporation of elaborate stairways and mantels in otherwise modest homes. Nearly 20 of those structures, including his own home, still stand today. Examples of his furniture are treasured locally as prized family heirlooms.

Photo of chest courtesy of The East Tennessee Historical Society

Photo of house by Brian Stansberry, permission granted under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2


Capers, Will: An enslaved cabinetmaker, Will Capers attempted to better his fellows by operating a secret night school in Beaufort County, South Carolina. Described in the memoirs of a fellow slave as highly intelligent and self-respecting, he hoped to teach publicly after the Union forces arrived, but instead was put to work on the confiscated plantation. He later joined one of General Hunter's 'colored' regiments.

Chelor, Cesar (c1720-1784): Cesar Chelor was enslaved to the earliest documented American planemaker, Francis Nicholson. The date and place of his birth are unknown, but he was made a member of the local church in 1741 - something that typically happened at the age of 21. Originally, Chelor probably performed menial tasks such as preparing lumber and forming cutting tools. But as time passed, he learned the craft and became increasingly important to the business. It is quite possible Nicholson spent much of his time on management and sales, leaving Chelor as the actual maker of many planes marked as Nicholson products. When Nicholson died in 1753 he gave Chelor his freedom, noting in his will, "As to my Negroman Cesar Chelor considering his faithful service, his tender care, & kind & Christian carriage I do set him free to act for himself in the world & I do will and bequeath unto him his bed and beding, his shift and clothing, his bench & common bench tools, a set of chisels, one vice, one sithe & tackling & ten acres of land to be set of to him at the end of my woodland…& one third part of my timber." Chelor continued to make tools under his own stamp for another 30 years. His planes are highly prized by collectors and museums.

Photo courtesy of


Charnock, Thomas (died c1840): Thomas Charnock was "a free man of color, a carpenter and cabinet-maker" who operated a shop at 16 Magazine St. in Charleston, South Carolina. He is listed as a landowner and property seller on city records as early as 1810.


Collins, Newton Isaac (1826-1903): Newton Collins was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of an African-American slave and her master, Silas Collins. His father manumitted him at a young age and arranged for his education and apprenticeship in carpentry. After his father's death he moved to Texas where he was re-enslaved until emancipation in 1865. He started his own business and built a number of homes and churches in the area. He became a land owner and community leader, eventually settling outside of Austin in an area called Pilot Knob, where he financed and built a school, along with a Methodist church for the community. He also paid for the teacher and minister.

Because of his dedication to education, Newton Collins Elementary School in Easton Park, Texas is named after him. It is thought to be the first modern school in Central Texas named for a former slave.

Photograph in the public domain

Cooper: A statement of slaves brought into the Commonwealth of Virginia by John B. Gilliam from the State of Tennessee on 16 April 1813 lists "One man of a black colour aged 17 years named Cooper, of the Trade of Cabinet Maker."

Craft, William (1824-1900): William Craft was enslaved in the Macon, Georgia area prior to 1850. As a skilled cabinetmaker, Craft enjoyed a small amount of autonomy not often allowed slaves. In 1846 he married his wife, Ellen, who was a lady's slave and the daughter of a slave and her master. Unhappy with their lives, they hatched a plot to escape. In 1848 Ellen, who possessed a very light complexion, masqueraded as a young white man travelling to Philadelphia for medical treatment, accompanied by William, who posed as her slave. They soon moved to Boston where Craft opened a furniture business. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act they fled to Liverpool, England where they remained until after the Civil War. They returned to Georgia in 1870, settled outside of Savannah, purchased 1,800 acres of land, and established the Woodville Co-operative Farm School for the education and employment of newly freed slaves.Their story is told in Craft's own narrative of 1860, entitled Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom.


Cyrus: On 25 November 1796 a Winchester, Virginia newspaper published an article about a formerly enslaved man named Cyrus who was well known and respected as a woodcarver, saying, "This is to acquaint the public, that all kinds of wooden TRAYS and LADLES are manufactured by CYRUS, a black man, who by indefatigable industry during his servitude, acquired a sum sufficient to liberate himself, by making and vending the above-mentioned articles. He served his latter master, Rueben Triplet, near thirty years, to whom he paid fifty pounds for his discharge. His behavior and industry recommend him in a peculiar manner to the notice of the public, who no doubt will afford him every encouragement in the laudable profession he has adopted to procure his livelihood."

David: John Watson operated a cabinetmaking business at 21 Tradd Street in Charleston from at least 1790 until his death in 1812. After Watson's death, a newspaper advertisement by auctioneers Campbell & Milliken revealed that among the “best Workmen” in Watson’s shop was an enslaved furnituremaker named David: "…will be sold before our vendue store (auction house), on TUESDAY, the 23rd of February, A NEGRO FELLOW, named David, a Cabinet Maker by Trade, belonging to the Estate of John Watson, late of Charleston, deceased."


Day, Devereux (born 1833): Devereux Day was the son of Thomas Day (see entry). A free black, he worked in his father's shop c1849-1851 before being sent to the Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts, a religious training school operated by abolitionist Methodists. He is said to have been careless with money and was a disappointment to his father, who in a letter to his eldest daughter said, "Devereux, I am sorry to know, was the worst boy I ever had to manage in my life." Nonetheless, the chair shown here which carries the chalk inscription, 'D.J. Day' under the seat, indicates he possessed considerable skill when he applied himself.

Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Company

Day, John [Sr.] (died 1832): John Day, father of Thomas Day (see entry) was a free black cabinetmaker who worked in and around Dinwiddie County, Virginia. His son, John Jr. reported that he was the illegitimate son of a White plantation mistress and her coachman. He may have had a Quaker education and possibly received his training and worked in the Petersburg, Virginia furniture industry which flourished after the Revolutionary War. He was quite successful, managed to acquire considerable wealth, and was influential in the community.

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Day, John [Jr.] (1797-1859: Brother of Thomas Day (see entry), John Day [Jr.] was a free Black cabinetmaker who became part of the movement to have African Americans escape injustice by moving to Liberia. He became a Baptist minister in 1821 and moved to Liberia in 1830. He became the pastor of Providence Church in the Liberian capital, established Day's Hope School, was a delegate to their constitutional convention, a signer of the same, and chief justice of their supreme court.


Day, Thomas (c1801–1861): Thomas Day is the most famous black cabinetmaker in American history. Born free in Virginia, he moved to Milton, North Carolina around 1823. An excellent craftsman, he established one of the largest woodworking businesses in the state, providing furniture, interior woodwork, and coffins. Much of his work shows an definite African influence even though Day himself never visited that continent. He was well educated, held stock in the local bank, and owned substantial property including slaves. Highly successful, he enjoyed a respect not usually afforded blacks in antebellum North Carolina. This was demonstrated in 1830, when he returned to Virginia and married a free woman. State law of the time forbad free blacks from moving into North Carolina, and the citizens of Milton, along with the state's Attorney General, petitioned the General Assembly to waive the law in her case. The fact this bill passed is testimony to Day's reputation. Despite this unusual treatment, Day still lived under the same restrictive conditions as other free blacks in North Carolina, including the inability to obtain proper educations for his children, who he sent to Massachusetts for schooling. A great deal of legend exists about Thomas Day, but extant examples of his work prove his skill and historical records document his great success. A statue in his honor stands outside the North Carolina Museum of History.

Photo of secretary courtesy of Neal Auction Company

Photo of statue courtesy of The North Carolina Museum of History


Dixon, Haywood (1826-1889): Haywood Dixon was an enslaved carpenter who was owned by Henry Aldridge Dixon and worked at Sandy Loam Plantation in Greene County, North Carolina. Contemporary accounts state that "Uncle Haywood" was held in such high esteem by his slaveholder that he and his family were buried in the (White) Dixon family graveyard. Unfortunately, that "high esteem" wasn't enough to merit tombstones so the Black Dixons lie in unmarked graves.


Photo in the public domain 

Haywood Dixon.jpg

Dolliole, Jean-Louis (1779-1861): Jean-Louis Dolliole was a free Black born of a White father and mixed race mother who lived in New Orleans and was identified on an 1822 census as a cabinetmaker and planter. He later branched out to home building, specializing in the Creole Cottage style. Many of his structures still stand in the French Quarter, including this house on Pauger Street .


Photo by Infrogmation, permission granted under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2

Dortch, Reuben Rainey (born c1814): In 1938, Mr. Charles Green Dortch, an 81 year old resident of Little Rock, Arkansas was interviewed for the Arkansas Slave Narratives. He described his father, Reuben, as a, "mulatto carpenter, chair, coffin and basket maker, who earned a living as such after the peace." Prior to emancipation he was enslaved by a Colonel Dortch of Dallas County and, as boss of the tool room, was a 'first man' on the plantation.

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Ellison, Stewart (1834-1899): Stewart Ellison was born enslaved to Abner P. Neal of Beaufort County, North Carolina. At the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to serve a term of seven years to learn the carpentry trade from Marrs (Marse) Newton (see entry), a "free mullato" mechanic in Washington, North Carolina. During his free time he pursued an education and learned to read and write. 

In 1852 he moved to Raleigh to work construction, possibly hired out by his owner, to the carpentry contracting firm of Conrad and Williams. After emancipation, he became an entrepreneur, first as a grocer and merchant, but by 1867 had returned to his trade and became a builder of great local renown. He built schools, hospitals and offices for the Freedmen’s Bureau and other agencies, and “gained quite a reputation by the superior workmanship." Ellison also entered political leadership and civic life, serving in the North Carolina Freedmen’s Conventions if 1865/1866, and an officer of the North Carolina Equal Rights League. He was one of the first black men elected to Raleigh's board of commissioners, represented Wake County in the state legislature for multiple terms, and served on the board of directors of the State Penitentiary.

Photo used by permission of The City of Raleigh Museum

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Evans, Wilson Bruce (1824-1898) and Henry (1817-1886): The Evans brothers were born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina and learned the trade of cabinet and carriage making as young men. Henry (the eldest) was operating a cabinet shop in Hillsborough, North Carolina before they both moved north in 1854 and settled in Oberlin, Ohio, a town with a thriving black community that represented about 20% of the population. They started their own cabinetmaking and upholstery business and became valued members of the commercial and educational communities. The brothers were also active in the Underground Railroad and participated in the famous Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858, in which John Price, a fugitive slave, was captured. Black and white residents joined together to rescue Price and transport him to Canada. Thirty-seven people including the Evans brothers were indicted for breaking the Fugitive Slave Law and spent 84 days in jail until prosecutors dropped charges against them. When the Civil War began, Wilson Evans, who was light skinned, passed as white and enlisted in an all-white unit of the Union Army. His house is still owned by his descendants and is a National Historic Landmark.

Photo used under license from Oberlin College


Fort, Henry (died 1876): According to a local history published in 1913, the town of Garner, North Carolina owes its origins to "an old negro by the name of Henry Fort" who purchased 52 acres of land adjoining the North Carolina Railroad just after the Civil War. Originally a (possibly enslaved) laborer on the farm of William Fort, he operated a woodshop and supplied residents with "bureaus, wardrobes, and almost any piece of furniture [they] wished." An estate inventory dated 14 October 1876 lists among the assets two beds, four chairs, a chest, bureau, candle stand, looking glass, and cupboard. His furniture is rumored to be owned by a number of local families, but the town historian has failed to locate any.


Glapion, Celestin (1784-1826): Celestin Glapion was the son of the Chevelier Christophe de Glapion and his slave Lizette, and was freed upon his father's death. He was a highly skilled furniture maker who worked in New Orleans between 1805 and 1823. His descendants continued in the trade into the 20th Century.

Photo used under license from The Louisiana State Museum

Glasgow, Joe: Joe Glasgow was a master carpenter enslaved by Capt. Henry Tayloe of Marengo County, Alabama. See Lee, Peter for additional information.


Goins (also Goines), Luther (born c1865): Luther Goins was a Black wheelwright and woodworker from Clear Springs, Maryland. Around 1890 he made the fanciful wooden church chandelier shown here, which is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History

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Gough (also Goff), John (died 1790?): John Gough was a free Black cabinetmaker who worked in Charleston from 1766 to about 1800. Originally enslaved, Gough was provided a path to freedom in the 1763 will and testament of Elizabeth Akin, by paying the sum of 250 pounds to her estate. Interestingly, the will also stipulated that he be returned "...the Sum of Fifty pounds Current Money to Enable him to purchase Tools that he may get his Livelyhood by his Trade.” Gough was quite probably of mixed race as he was referred to as 'mulatto' in the will and was regularly described the same way in newspaper notices. In addition to cabinet making, Gough was involved in real estate and a participant in enslaving other African Americans. In May 1774, he mortgaged a woman named Cloe to coachmaker Matthias Hutchinson in order to satisfy a bond of £1,000. Two years later, one John Valk announced the self-emancipation of (probably) the same woman, who was “once the property of John Gough, cabinetmaker in Charleston.”  And in 1790, Gough mortgaged two enslaved men, Martin and Jack, along with a schooner for 261 pounds. Later that same year, Gough was arrested for a civil charge of unknown reason. He either died or was killed attempting to escape from jail, or he left Charleston and never returned. Nothing has been found to indicate he was still living after this time. He was certainly considered deceased by 1811, when Margaret Cordes Gough, “widow of John Gough, late of Charleston,” released her dower that was a claim to part of a lot on Unity Alley.

Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions


Gross, Thomas and Thomas Jr. (1775–1839): Thomas Gross was a free Black cabinetmaker who worked at 193 South Sixth Street in Philadelphia during the late 1700s. He taught the craft to his son who worked with him through 1806. Thomas Jr. opened his own shop on Mary Street in 1807, and later that year went into business with cabinetmaker and undertaker, Michael Baker. The partnership ended some time after 1809. Gross operated at a number of locations within the African American community at the south edge of the city along Lombard and Cedar (now South) Streets. His wife continued the business for at least four years after his death, suggesting a thriving enterprise with staff. A chest-on-chest made by him is the earliest known piece of signed furniture by an African American.

Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Hanover, William: On 5 October 1769, one Walker Taliaferro advertised in the Virginia Gazette, stating, "...RUN away from the plantation of William Fitzhugh, Esq; in King George, the 17th of September last, Hanover, a negro man slave, by some called William Hanover... by trade a good house carpenter and joiner...", offering, "THREE POUNDS reward, and FIVE if taken out of the colony," for his return.


Hemings, John (1775-1833): John Hemings was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson via his wife's inheritance. His mother was Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, his father most probably a White house joiner named Joseph Neilson. Hemmings was trained by a number of white woodworkers hired by Jefferson including James Dinsmore, who was responsible for most of the woodwork at Monticello. Under their tutelage he learned furniture making, joinery, carriagemaking and wheelwrighting. He became Dinsmore's assistant and succeeded him in 1809, taking complete charge of the woodworking shop. One of the overseers recalled that Hemings "could make anything that was wanted in woodwork." Jefferson's notes contain many references to Hemings' work and praise his talents. At least 20 pieces can be traced to the workshop, though only eight can be attributed directly to Hemings: two painted bedsteads, a round table for Poplar Forest, two dressing tables, at least one campeachy chair (see image), a chess table, and a small writing desk made for Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge. He also led work on Jefferson's second home at Poplar Forest and is said to have made Jefferson's coffin. Under the terms of Jefferson’s will, he was freed, given his tools, and the services of his two assistants (see Hemings, Madison and Eston). Although able to ply his trade as a freed man, he elected to remain at Monticello with his family until his own death in 1833.

Photo courtesy of The Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello

Hemings, Beverly (born 1798), Madison (1805-1877) and Eston (1808-1856): Beverly, Madison, and Eston Hemings were the nephews of John Hemings (see entry) and quite probably the sons of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved servant (and half sister of Jefferson's deceased wife). Like their uncle, the brothers worked in the Monticello joinery. Under the terms of Jefferson's will, John Hemings retained the services of his enslaved nephews as apprentices in his shop until they were granted their own freedom at the age of twenty-one. The Hemings brothers were said to have bore striking resemblances to Jefferson and at least two were light skinned; Eston in particular looked so much like Jefferson that he was kept out of the sight of visitors.


According to Madison, Beverly left Monticello in 1822, went to Washington as a white man, and married a white woman in Maryland. Their only child, a daughter, "was not known by the white folks to have any colored blood coursing in her veins." Nothing else is known about the remainder of his life.

Madison married a free woman of color, Mary McCoy.  In the late 1830s they left Virginia for a rural community in southern Ohio, where Mary's family was already settled. Madison helped build several structures in the notoriously anti-black town of Waverly.  He gradually accumulated property and, by 1865, he and his family were living on their sixty-six-acre farm in Ross County. Madison and Mary raised nine children.  When his recollections were recorded in 1873, he gave his history in a matter-of-fact manner, referring to Jefferson as his father a number of times. His reputation as a man of his word survived in the family of white neighbors to the present day.

Eston married a free woman of color, Julia Ann Isaacs.  About 1838 they sold their property and moved to Chillicothe, OH, where he led a very successful dance band.  He was remembered as "a master of the violin, and an accomplished 'caller' of dances."  At mid-century Eston, Julia, and their three children left Ohio for Wisconsin, changing their surname to Jefferson and living henceforth as white people. They settled in the capital, Madison, where Eston pursued his trade as a cabinetmaker.  A 1998 study genetically linked his male descendants with male descendants of the Jefferson family.


Henry, William: William "Jerry" Henry escaped from slavery in Missouri and came to Syracuse, New York via the Underground Railroad. A trained cabinetmaker and cooper, he expected to live out his days in peace, as the state had abolished slavery in 1827. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made safe havens for runaways illegal and on 1 October 1851 he was arrested at work by Federal Marshals and taken to jail. An anti-slavery group known as the Liberty Party organized a rescue and nearly 2000 people stormed the jail. After hiding in town for a few days, William was ferried to Canada and permanent freedom. His broken shackles were mailed to President Millard Fillmore. A memorial to the rescue stands in downtown Syracuse.


Photo by Paul Malo, permission granted under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2

Hern, David (1755- after 1827): David Hern was a woodworker, wheelwright, and carpenter, enslaved to Thomas Jefferson. He spent almost fifty years at Monticello performing myriad tasks from building cabins and fences to working on the house itself. He and his wife Isabel had twelve children.

Hill (also Howe), John (also Johnson): On 29 June 1803 a Mr. W.H. Hill placed an ad in The Charleston Courier offering $200 reward for the return of "a Young fellow belonging to me, named John, sometimes called Johnson, at times calling himself John Hill, at other times John Howe. This fellow is about 5 feet 5 inches high, 23 years old, and is of a dull copper colour, being the son of a mulatto man and negro woman; his features are generally ugly; his eyes remarkably large and prominent; he is sensible and shrewd, civil in his manners, and plausible in conversation; he served his time with a cabinet maker, and has worked as a journeyman with a Windsor Chair-maker; he is very ingenious, and well acquainted with the use of the joiners tools."

Holmes, Johny: An advertisement in the November 20, 1736 edition of the South Carolina Gazette seeks the capture and return of "a Free Negro Fellow, named Johny Holmes, bred a Wheelwright and Carpenter, well known at Goose Creek, Wassamssaw and Charlestown, being lately an indentured Servant with Nicholas Trott Esq," who ran away after having his indenture sold to Kennedy O'Brien of Savannah.


Howard, William (born c1805): William "Willie" Howard was enslaved man who worked on the Kirkwood Plantation of Mississipi Governor William McWillie in Madison County. A desk currently owned by the Wadsworth Museum is one of two existing pieces he created after emancipation. The outside is covered in exhuberant appliques that historians speculate reflect his life in slavery, while the interior is cobbled together with pieces of old packing crates that still show markings from Northern cotton mills and Southern tobacco packagers.

Photo courtesy of

James: In 1818, a Norfolk, Virginia cabinetmaker named James Woodward loaned an enslaved craftsman named James $120 to purchase his freedom. In return, James agreed to "for 12 months next ensuing . . . [to] . . . work as a Journeyman Cabinetmaker...until the full value . . . shall be repaid to him."

James: A South Carolina bill of sale dated 22 March 1841 states that Thomas Morrison sold an enslaved man named James, "a Cabinet Maker by trade," to James Davidson.

Jamison, George (born 1821): George Jamison was a chairmaker who worked in central Tennessee.

Jemmy [James]: In the 17 June 1784 edition of the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, William Fitzhugh offered twenty pounds reward for the return of, "...a dark Mulatto Fellow, named JAMES, generally called Jemmy... 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, 29 years of age... sensible and well spoken...  is a good house joiner, carver, wheelwright and painter, and a tolerable Negro fiddler..."

Jones, Dudley C. (1805-1883): Dudley C. Jones was a free Black cabinetmaker who worked in Louisville, Kentucky. Little is known of his life aside from two newspaper articles. The first, published in December, 1853 reported that Jones was arrested for aiding an enslaved woman named Mary to run away. She was found hidden in Jones' house, dressed as a boy to facilitate her escape. There is no evidence Jones was ever brought to trial although a co-conspirator was sentenced to prison. The second, dated in September 10, 1858 stated that Jones built the chairs for the pulpit of the First African Baptist Church in Louisville, noting, "The pulpit is an admirable piece of work and furnished with noble mahogany chairs manufactured by D. C. Jones, a colored cabinet-maker.”

Jones, Jethro (c1733–1828): Jethro Jones was a planemaker who operated in Medway, Wrentham, and Holliston, Massachusetts between 1758 and 1790. He also served in the Continental Army between 1777 and 1783.

Jordan, John C: John C. Jordan was a successful cabinet and coffin maker who operated at 71 Park St. in Baltimore. His business was well established by 1850 and records from 1865 indicate he had $1600 in stock and $9000 in personal property.

King, John A. (died 1849): Local business directories list John A. King as a "colored" planemaker operating at 20 Academy St. in Newark, New Jersey from 1835-1837.

Kunze, William (born c1835): William Kunze was a chairmaker who worked "near Painter's Store" in St. Charles, Missouri. An emancipated slave, he was given a home, name, and trade by a German immigrant named Wilhem Kuntze, who was one of the 'Latin Farmers'. As a result, his chairs are similar to the peasant style of Schleswig-Holstein, but bear a number of unique traits such as distinctive pointed finials and the exclusive use of hickory for construction.

Photo used under license from The University of Missouri Press


Lawrence, Thomas (1848-1918): The son of free-black parents, Thomas Lawrence was employed as a cabinet-maker by Fernando and Sophia Stone Kelton of Columbus, Ohio. Staunch abolitionists, the Kelton family operated a safe house on the Underground Railroad. The house still stands at 586 East Town Street and operates as a museum.

Photo courtesy of The Kelton House Museum


Lee, Peter (born c1810): Peter Lee was an enslaved cabinetmaker, carpenter, and carver who was born in Virginia and belonged to Capt. Henry Tayloe of Marengo County, Alabama. He made plantation-style furniture from native hardwoods and was involved in many construction projects including St. Andrews Episcopal Church, which was built by a crew of enslaved workers led by Lee and Joe Glasgow (see entry), which is now a National Historic Landmark. Oral tradition holds that Lee was allowed to hire himself out and purchased his freedom by 1850 but no documentation has been found to substantiate that information.


Cellarette photo courtesy of The Marengo County Historical Society

Photo of St. Andrews Church in the public domain


Lewis (1758-1822): Inherited from the estate of his father-in-law, John Wayles, Lewis was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, and was identified in his 'Farm Book' as a carpenter and cradler. Beginning in 1801, he was trained by joiners John Dinsmore and James Oldham. He turned the balusters for the roof of Monticello and was so efficient that Jefferson noted, "I was in hopes that Abram could have hewed Locust as fast as Lewis could turn it." He later worked in the joinery with John Hemings (see entry), helping to create a dressing table and set of venetian blinds.

Lockhart House Chamber desk.jpg

Lockhart (also Lockett), Handy  (c1795-1884): Handy Lockhart was a cabinetmaker originally enslaved to William Thompson of Wake County, North Carolina. Some time after 1834 Thompson was hired to build the legislative furniture for a new Capital. He was joined in that work by a number of his enslaved craftsmen including Lockhart, based on this quote from a N.W. West, "...Mr. Thompson had a cabinet shop. I was told that he and a negro man. 'Uncle' Handy Lockhart, and some other... slaves under his direction made all the furniture - solid mahogany - now in use in the House of Representatives." This statement is substantiated by the fact the State paid Lockhart $465 in 1869 for "sundry repairs on desks and chairs in the Senate Chamber and House of Representatives" and $70.75 in 1874 for "making book case for Supreme Court room."

In 1840, Lockhart married a free woman, an unusual occurrence since enslaved people were not allowed to marry at the time, and it is certain Lockhart still was based on William Thompson's will of 1855 where he wrote, "to son John I give my man Handy." Thompson never updated the will, and it is assumed Lockhart remained enslaved until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865.

After Thompson's death in 1869, the then free Lockhart took over his business, located at 409 South Blount Street. In addition to making furniture, it appears he also made coffins and provided undertaking services - something not unusual for cabinetmakers of that era. At the same time he became politically active and a Raleigh city leader. He was appointed by the governor to the Raleigh Board of Commissioners, served as an alderman and magistrate, was a member of The Colored Educational Association of North Carolina, a delegate for the State Republican Convention, and even ran for mayor, albeit unsuccessfully.

Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Malorry, Peter (c1764 - after 1836): Peter Malorry was a carpenter, enslaved by (President) James Monroe starting in 1817. Documentary evidence shows he built the standing guesthouse at Highland with another enslaved man named George. It’s apparent from inventories and correspondence that Peter Malorry was primarily at Oak Hill plantation in Loudoun County, Virginia, but was temporarily moved to Highland during late summer 1818 for the purpose of building new structures for Monroe.

Melton, Perry (born c1822): Perry Melton was born in South Carolina and is listed as a resident of Starkville, Mississippi on the 1870 census. One of approximately eighteen free Blacks in Oktibbeha county, he was a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker. During slavery his official administrator, as required by law, was John Thompson, through whom he transacted legal matters. He married one of Thompson's slaves, Sallie, and raised a family. After the war he moved to the county seat and worked in the carpentry and cabinet shop of Lewis Martin; his specialty was coffins and furniture. He managed to accumulate considerable wealth and, as of 1977, his descendants still lived on property he owned.

Moss, Jonathan (c1778-1863): Jonathon Moss was a Black cabinetmaker who worked in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was born free and originally lived in Albermale County. It is not known if he operated his own shop there, but tax records indicate he had both apprentices and enslaved people working for him. He moved to Lynchburg in 1814 and probably worked as a journeyman there until around 1820 when census records indicate he was involved with agriculture. Although free, he was "...ordered to be sold pursuant to the act of assembly for failing to pay [his] taxes," a common practice during the period. He must have managed to pay the debt as he was still being taxed after 1827. By 1840 he and his family moved to Ohio where he worked as as farmer until his death.

Johnathan Moss.jpg

Moss, William: In the collection of Colonial Williamsburg is a neoclassical sideboard of mahogany that bears the inscription, "William Moss by his hand." Moss was a free Black cabinetmaker who was active in Campbell County, Virginia between (at least) 1814 and 1820.

Photo courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Muddy: In 1743, Spence Monroe - father of the future president - entered into an indenture with Virginia cabinetmaker Robert Walker, that "bound sd. Spence an Apprentice to Walker... to live for space of five years from these present & his Negro Muddy for space of six years... both to learn the trade of a joyner." Monroe's superior social status provided privileges including the right to "Eat in Company with the said Rob. Walker or the Chief of his Journeymen" while the enslaved Muddy was to be "Employed in no Other Business than in the way of the said Trade and Shop Business," and allowed, "Only a Day or two at Planting or gathering Corn or on Such Emergency Occasions."

Nichols, Joseph [Joe] (c1822-after 1880): Joseph Nichols was a mixed-race carpenter/joiner who worked primarily  in Hillsborough and Orange Counties, North Carolina. Born enslaved to merchant, Richison Nichols, he was ultimately sold to John Berry, a builder and bricklayer by trade. Identified in Berry's will as "Joseph my carpenter", he executed much of the fine woodwork and carvings that grace Berry’s many buildings. His work can still be seen today in Hillsborough's Old Courthouse, Colonial Inn, and Methodist Church. Nichols continued to work for Berry after emancipation in 1865, and remained in his employ until Berry's death in 1870. He was still alive at the time of the 1880 census but only his widow's name appears on the 1900 census.

Newton, Thomas (died 1826) and Mars (also Marrs, Marse): Thomas Newton was born in Craven County, North Carolina. Originally enslaved to a Benjamin Woods, he was willed to his daughter, Sarah, who emancipated him in September 1808. Trained as a carpenter, he earned enough money to free his wife, Sarah, a slave of John Devereux. The petition states he was, "master of the Carpenter business and [is] able to maintain himself wife & children." He also posted an Emancipation Bond for at least one of his children, a trained shoemaker named Macklin. Newton had at least one other child, a free carpenter named Mars, to whom he beqeathed most of his tools upon his death in 1826. Mars moved to Washington, North Carolina by 1830, where he successfully practiced his trade and trained his apprentice, Stewart Ellison (see entry).

Otho: Otho was an emancipated slave who came to Bradford County, Pennsylvania with his former master, Ezra Goddard, in 1799. A turner by trade, he became a valuable member of the community, providing a variety of household goods.

Overton, William: William Overton was a free Black wheelwright and Civil War veteran. In August 1867, Augusta Finck, a German woman and the wife of a grocer Overton roomed with, ran away with him to New York. They got as far as Wilmington, North Carolina before being captured and returned to Charleston for trial.


Patton, George (1825-1896) and John (died 1890): The Patton brothers were chairmakers who operated in Williamson County, Tennessee.


Photo courtesy of Richard Warwick

Pompey: Among the enslaved craftsmen who worked on the Pinckhey Mansion in Charleston, South Carolina was a carpenter named Pompey, who was apprenticed to John “Quash” Williams (see entry). Originally enslaved by British Army Officer George Lucas, Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s father, Pompey later became the property of Charles Pinckney and Eliza Lucas Pinckney through their 1744 marriage settlement. Described as “Pompey the Carpenter” in various documents, he worked on a number of Lucas and Pinckney family plantations. Of interest is a 1745 letter, from overseer, William Murray, to Charles Pinckney, in which he reports  that, “Pompey has been very bad twise [sic] with the Plursey & I could not get the New barn finished.” 

Poyas, Peter (died 1822): Peter Poyas, an slave and co-conspirator of Denmark Vesey (see entry) in the Charleston slave rebellion, was "a first class ship's carpenter."

poyner advert.jpg

Poyner, Richard (1802-1882), James (1833-1893), and William : Born enslaved in Halifax County, Virginia, Richard (Dick) Poyner emigrated to Williamson County, Tennessee with his slaveholder, Robert Poyner, in 1816. He probably learned chairmaking from Robert as his estate inventory included chairmaking tools, many of which were bequeathed to Richard after Robert's passing in 1848. Willed to Robert's son, Dr. AB. Poyner, it appears Richard gained his freedom shortly afterward, though there is no historic evidence to indicate such. In September of 1849 he advertised that his chairs were being sold through the store of William Park in Franklin, Tennessee, and by 1860 he was operating his chairmaking business on a 75 acre farm he owned in the western part of the county. He taught the craft to his son, James, who in turn instructed his son, William. All told, they made hundreds of chairs with maple posts and hickory rungs. The business extended into the 1920s.


Photo of chairs courtesy of Richard Warwick

Advertisement from the Western Weekly Review, 21 Sept. 1849


Pritchard, “Gullah” Jack (died July 1822): "Gullah" Jack Pritchard was an enslaved ship's joiner and caulker who was born in East Africa.  His position provided some small freedoms, and he often hired himself out. He was seen by local Whites as nothing more than an “industrious little man with large black whiskers," but to the Blacks he was an, "African priest of great power and magic," who possessed a bag of conjuring implements. His spiritual authority was firmly rooted in those tools and ceremonies of divination, healing, and supernatural control. Few Blacks doubted his ability to heal or control people and events.

A friend of the self-emancipated Black carpenter, Denmark Vesey (see entry), they were allies in the fight against slavery, and worked together to plan an insurrection.  Despite careful planning, Vesey and Pritchard were betrayed by some Black informers, rounded up, and put on trial without legal representation. He was portrayed as a bloodthirsty master of black arts and sentenced to death, with the court noting, " were not satisfied with resorting to natural and ordinary means, but endeavored to enlist on your behalf, all the powers of darkness, and employed for that purpose the most disgusting mummery and superstition. You represented yourself as invulnerable …. Your boasted charms have not protected yourself …. Your alters [sic] and your Gods have sunk together in the dust.” On July 12, 1882 he was taken out of the central city  and hung.

Quamina: In the early 19th Century, John Fisher of Charleston, South Carolina advertised for the return of his 17 year old slave, Quamina, who "ran away from his duties as carver and chair maker." According to Fisher, Quamina often stated he could "go when he pleases" and was "known in and about Charlestown [sic] by his impudent behavior."

Raymond, John: John Raymond was a free black cabinetmaker who operated a shop in Petersburg, Virginia around 1816 in partnership with John Ventus. Raymond & Ventus employed several white artisans and proudly advertised they worked "in the best and most fashionable style."

Richmond, Asa: Originally an enslaved cabinetmaker, Asa Richmond operated a small furniture business in conjunction with fellow slave, William Wallace Andrews (see entry).


Richmond, William (1763-1829): William Richmond was enslaved in Cuckold's Town (now Richmondtown), Staten Island, New York. He was owned by Lord Percy, Duke of Northumberland and commanding general of British forces in New York during the Revolutionary War. Richmond worked as a hangman for Percy, his most famous execution being that of Nathan Hale. Richmond was 13 years old at the time and responsible for "fastening the rope to a strong tree branch and securing the knot and noose." In 1777 he was taken to England and apprenticed to a cabinetmaker. After getting into a fight with a soldier, Richmond was prompted to take up boxing and ultimately gave up cabinetmaking to fight professionally. Known as The Black Terror, Richmond won many fights. His most famous bout took place on 8 October 1805 when he fought Tom Cribb. Richmond lost in the 60th round and newspapers reported, "the crowd was pleased that a black man had been put in his place." After retiring from boxing, Richmond married, bought a pub, and operated a boxing academy. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.

Image in the Public Domain

Robin: The 1 August 1766 edition of the Virginia Gazette contains an ad stating, "Run away from the subscriber, on the 7th of July... a Mulatto man slave named Robin, about 5 feet and a half high, well fed, bow legged, has several noted scars on his feet and legs... when he walks or works his foot it draws as if the leaders were cut... his back has been well whipped, and is a carpenter and cooper by trade."

Rousseau, Jean: Jean Rousseau was free Black (homme de coulieur libres) cabinetmaker who operated a business in New Orleans between 1810 and 1837. During that time he had at least twenty five free blacks apprenticed to him including Dutreuil Barjon Sr. (see entry).


Scott, Allen: Allen Scott was a free Black cabinetmaker who lived in the Bridgewater Community of McDowell County, North Carolina and worked in the shop of Joseph Hunter between 1828 and 1850. The descendants of Joseph Hunter own a number of Allen's pieces including this small table that was featured in the Journal of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers.


Photo courtesy of James Conley

Sheridan church.jpg

Sheridan, Thomas (c1787-1864): Thomas Sheridan was described as an "emancipated mulatto" carpenter who worked in Bladen County, North Carolina. There is some evidence he was the offspring of a planter/merchant named Joseph Gautier and an enslaved woman named Nancy Sheridan, though there is no definitive proof of such. What is certain is that Gautier petitioned the State Legislature for approval to manumit Thomas and his brother Louis, and that Nancy (then free) and her two sons were major beneficiaries in Gautier's will.


Sheridan is primarily remembered as the builder of Brown Marsh Presbyterian Church. That structure is one of the few remaining examples of a simple frame church from the period. In his will, he left his farm, livestock, and household goods to his wife, specified that his gun and tools be sold to pay for his funeral, and the lumber in his shop be used "to make my coffin."


Photo by J.J. Prats, (used with permission)

Sherman, William (died c1851): William Sherman was an enslaved cabinetmaker and blacksmith who lived around Robertsville, South Carolina. Highly skilled, he negotiated his freedom for $1800, which he paid for after the fact by hiring himself out to wealthy plantation owners. With skills that were highly in demand, he worked toward the goal of purchasing freedom for his slave wife and son. Sadly, he died before saving enough to do so.


Singleton, Benjamin (1809-1892): Sometimes referred to as "The Black Moses" Benjamin "Pap" Singleton was born enslaved in Nashville, Tennessee. A trained cabinetmaker and carpenter, he made three unsuccessful escape attempts before he finally managed to make his way to Detroit via the Underground Railroad, and then on to Ontario, Canada. He later returned to Detroit and kept a secret boarding-house for fugitive slaves. During the Civil War he returned to Nashville, which was then under Union control, and made his living building cabinets and coffins. Believing his mission was to help his people improve their lives, he started an effort to buy farmland for blacks, but failed when whites began demanding excessive prices. He later became a leader of a movement to relocate blacks to Kansas in search of a better life. About 3000 former slaves moved west with plans to create businesses and factories, but the movement failed due to a lack of capital.


Image in the public domain

Smith, Burgunda: Burgunda Smith was a free Black cabinetmaker who worked in the shop of Thomas Day (see entry).


Smith, Hence (probably Henderson): Hence Smith was an enslaved Black cabinetmaker who worked in North Carolina as early as 1840. He may have moved to Eutaw, Greene County, Alabama later in life.


Photo courtesy of Derrick Beard

Somerville, Albert (born c1835): Born in Virginia, Albert Somerville is identified as a 35 year old Black cabinetmaker working in Nashville, Tennessee on the 1870 Federal census.

Southward, John (also Lander, Jack): William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts noted in his diary entry of 2 November 1815 that upon the death of Peter Green, "we found only one African, Jack Lander, who as a freedman takes the name of John Southward... he served his time at Chairmaking with W. Lander and came from Africa.'

Stephens, George E.: George Stephens was a cabinetmaker, Northern soldier, and correspondent for The Weekly Anglo-African, the nations premier Black newspaper during the 1850s and 60s. His story is told in the book, A Voice of Thunder: The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens, by Donald Yacovone.

Stephens, John Herbert: John Herbert Stephens was a cabinetmaker and teacher who also served as a deputy sheriff and constable in Little Rock, Arkansas during the period immediately following the Civil War when Black residents could vote and participate in civic affairs. He was married to Charlotte "Lottie" Andrews, daughter of William Wallace Andrews (see entry) and the first African American teacher in Little Rock.

Teasman, John (born 1794): John Teasman is listed as a planemaker in 1835-37 Newark, New Jersey business directories and identified as such on the 1850 census.

Thompson, Scipio: Scipio Thompson was a carpenter and cabinet maker from Wheatville, Texas. On July 5, 1873 he became the first elected black alderman in Austin, Texas.

Ventus, John: John Ventus was a free Black cabinetmaker who operated in Norfolk, Virginia as early as 1801. By 1816 he had relocated to Petersburg, Virginia and worked in partnership with another black cabinetmaker, John Raymond (see entry).

Debmark Vesey monument .jpg

Vesey, Denmark (c1767-1822): Denmark Vesey, who was originally named Telemaque by his captors, was born in West Africa. After spending 20 years as a slave in Charleston, he won $1500 and purchased his freedom in 1800. A skilled artisan, Vesey opened a carpentry shop and became quite prosperous. Although successful, Vesey never forgot the suffering of his people and became extremely active in the antislavery movement. In 1822 he organized over 9000 slaves and free blacks and planned a revolt. Rumors of the plot spread and the city was thrown into panic. Vesey was betrayed and he, along with 46 others, were rounded up and hanged.


Photo by Brenda J. Peart, used granted under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International 


Washington (born 1837): Washington was an enslaved chair and cabinet maker who was born and worked on the Oak Grove Plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina (now a museum). His chairs exhibit a distinctive feature: crest rails and back slats with a double peak at their upper edge while his case pieces are of the plain-style form common to most plantation-made furniture of the era. His chairs are stylistically similar to those made by the white Way family of the area, indicating that he may have apprenticed with or been influenced by them.

Photos courtesy of The Alamance County Museum


Waterford, Adam: Adam Waterford was a free Black who operated a cooperage in Williamsburg, Virginia around the time of the Revolutionary War. He was succesful enough to have owned a large house not far from the governor's palace.


White, William Jefferson (1832-1913): Born to a White planter and mixed-race slave, William Jefferson White was a cabinetmaker by trade and minister by vocation. Born in Elbert County, Georgia, he was taken to South Carolina as a child and returned to Augusta as an adult. He trained in carpentry at the Goodrich Lumber Company and later worked as a cabinet and coffin maker for the Platt Brothers, a furniture and undertaking firm. He also worked construction and helped build several churches and schools in the area. Light skinned and blue eyed, White could have easily "passed" but chose to live as a Black man. During the 1850s he he organized clandestine schools for slaves and free Blacks, earning him the title of "Father of Negro Education" in the Augusta area. In the days following the Civil War, he became an important figure in the early civil rights movement. He worked hard to forge close associations with the white citizenry, started the Harmony Baptist Church, championed Republican Party causes, and sat on the Board of Trustees for Spelman Seminary. In 1867 he founded the Augusta Institute, which is now Morehouse College.

Photo used under license from The University of Georgia Press

Williams, John [Quash]: John Williams was born to an African mother and White father in South Carolina between 1720 and 1725. Quash was his birth name; he took the name John for himself when he was baptized in 1746. Enslaved by Charles and Eliza Pinckney, he became a skilled carpenter-joiner, having done much of the woodwork and carving on the Pinckney mansion, as well as supervising a crew of enslaved and free white craftsmen. He was so much favored, that the Pinckneys paid him bonuses while still enslaved, and gave him 750 pounds to purchase his freedom in 1750. They also sold him land behind their mansion where he built his own home.


Shortly after emancipation, Williams placed an advertisement in the South Carolina Gazette seeking work. He was quite successful, and with profits earned from his trade, he was able to purchase three of his enslaved children in 1751 for 200 pounds and granted them freedom in 1754. Sadly, he was unable to purchase his wife, Molly and another daughter from the same slaveholder.  He continued to thrive and by 1758 had paid off his mortgage. In 1763, he advertised that he was leaving the city. With the finest home in Charleston as his advertisement and over a decade of experience working on his own, he was able to continue his life as successful master carpenter and joiner, and also became a planter, working land along the Santee River.

John Williams ad 1.jpg
John Williams ad 2.jpg

Wiltshire: The Williamsburg, Virginia Printing Office accounts of 1764 and 1765 identify a slave named Wiltshire working in the cabinetmaking shop of Anthony Hay. He was most certainly not a common laborer, as the 17 January 1771 edition of The Virginia Gazette contains an ad reading, "To be Sold, on Wednesday the 6th of March, pursuant to the last Will and Testament of Mr Anthony Hay, deceased, that noted and well accustomed Tavern in Williamsburg called the Raleigh, which has every Convenience to it, and exceeding fine Stable and Pasture adjoining. At the same Time will be sold... nineteen negroes... among them a very good Cabinet Maker..."

The information presented here was gleaned from books, periodicals, museums, public records, web sites, historians and collectors. I want to express my sincere gratitude to those who did the original research (see Sources) or were kind enough to allow the use of their photographs. 


Contributions to this page are highly encouraged. Please contact me about any information you have on Black woodworkers of the era.


Sources: The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson; A Guide to the Makers of American Wooden Planes, Emil & Martyl Pollak; Antiques Magazine, May 1997; Alabama Heritage Magazine, Winter 2008; Black World Magazine, May 1974; BlackWebPortal.Com; KnowYourBlackHistory.Com; AARegistry.Com; DestrehanPlantation.Org; African Americans in New Orleans: Making a Living; Ancestry.Com; The Cincinnati Directory of 1842; Digital Library on American Slavery; Wikipedia; RaceMatters.Org;; The New York Times; City of Austin, TX; Bobby J. Donaldson, Professor of History and African American Studies, University of South Carolina; Michael W. Bell, from an overview of the exhibit, First Rate & Fashionable: Handmade Nineteenth Century Furniture at the Tennessee State Museum; Thomas Day, African American Furniture Maker, Rodney Barfield and Patricia Marshall; Leaders of Afro-American Nashville, Department of History - Tennessee State University; Encyclopedia of African American Business History;; Charleston Furniture 1700-1825, E. Milby Burton; Arts and Architecture of German Settlements in Missouri, Charles van Ravensway; The Journal of Negro History, Volume 1, Sir William Crooks; The Arkansas Slave Narratives; The Thomas Jefferson Foundation; Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad, Betty DeRamus; The Topeka Capital Journal; PBS; History of Bradford County 1770-1878; The Insolent Slave, William Wiethoff; Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina, Thomas Holt; "Pap" Singleton, Moses of the Colored Exodus, Walter L. Fleming; The American Slave, a Composite Biography, various contributors; The Florida Slave Narratives; Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia, 1710-1790, Wallace Gusler; Eighteenth-Century Cabinet Shops and the Furniture-Making Trades in Newport, Rhode Island, Mack Headley; Simmon's Norfolk Directory for the year 1801;; The Smithsonian Institution; Kaye Buffalo Whaley; Ethnicity and Race: German Immigrants and African-Americans in Charleston South Carolina during Reconstruction, Jeffery G Strickland; Blacks in British Boxing; The Tennessee Historical Society; Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin; Black Heritage Sites, Nancy C. Curtis; The Collaboration of Thomas Jefferson and John Hemings, Robert L. Self and Susan R. Stein; Windsor-Chair Making in America, Nancy Goyne Evans; The Diary of William Bentley, D.D., Volume 4; Derrick Beard, organizer of the Sankofa exhibit; Richard Warwick, Historian of The Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, Tennessee; Journal of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, Volume V; Paternalism in a Southern City, various contributors; Historical Raleigh: Sketches of Wake County and Its Important Towns, Moses N. Amis; African-American Art, Sharon F. Patton; The Hidden Legacy of Enslaved Craftsmen, Daniel Kurt Ackermann (from Antiques & Fine Art magazine); The City Gazette and Daily Advertiser of Charleston, South Carolina; Historical Markers of Hale County, Alabama; The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, John Michael Vlach; The Tuscaloosa News; Off the Beaten Path: Alabama, Gay N Martin; Black and White All Mix'd Together: The Hidden Legacy of Enslaved Craftsmen, Daniel Kurt Ackermann (from Antiques and Fine Art magazine); Dr. Claude F. Jacobs, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan; Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library; The Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne, edited by Rupert Sargent Holland; Charleston, South Carolina City Directories: 1816, 1819, 1822, 1825 and 1829, James William Hagy; Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915, Loren Schweninger; Deed Abstracts of King George County, Virginia , 1735-1752; A Voice of Thunder: The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens, Donald Yacovone; The Kansas City Star, 18 Feb. 1900; EmilyEVaughn.Com; The Alamance County Museum of Burlington, North Carolina; The Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winter 2005; The Kelton House Museum of Columbus, Ohio; The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture;; The International Boxing Hall of Fame;; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; New Orleans Architecture: Faubourg Treme and the Bayou Road, various contributors; John Gough, Free Black Cabinetmaker (Journal of Early Southern Arts, vol. 41), Grahame Long and Gary Albert; By His Hand: A Free Black Cabinetmaker's Sideboard, Jackie Mazzone (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation); Close to the land: The way we lived in North Carolina, 1820-1870, Thomas H Clayton;; A Carpenter's Testament: The John Brown Painted Corner Cabinet, Jerome Bias (from The Journal of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, volume XII; North Carolina Architects & Builders: A Biographical Dictionary (; Stewart Ellison, by Elizabeth Davis Reid, from Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, edited by William S. Powell;; USGenWeb Archives; Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina 1770-1900, Catherine W. Bishir; John "Quash" Williams: Charleston Builder, Dr. Tiffany Moman (Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts),  On His Own Book, The Story of Chairmaker Richard Poyner, by Hunter S. Zyriek-Rhodes (Mortise and Tenon magazine, Issue 11); Thomas Sheridan by Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architects and Builders Biographical Dictionary (; The Historical Marker Database (; Lost Art Press blog; Historic Hillsborough Black History Walk (; Black Craftspeople Digital Archive; The Captives Quest for Freedom, RJM Blackett;;;;;; American Civil War Museum

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