Black furniture makers left legacy of craftsmanship

February 27, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

The offerings at a small, quiet New Orleans auction three years ago were "fair to middling" for Derrick Beard until he saw a note in small print in the catalog about a four-poster cherry bed.

The bed, made by African-American craftsman Henry Boyd, went without a bid during an unimpressive first round of the auction.

"Nobody wanted it," says Mr. Beard, a Chicago art dealer. "I didn't know who Henry Boyd was at the time, but I read in the catalog that the bed was made by an African-American, and that kind of did it for me. When the bed came up again (for auction), I put in my bid."

Mr. Beard, 35, paid $1,000 for the bed made in the 1840s, and left the auction with a piece of history and the yearning to find more furniture made by African-Americans.

"The Boyd bed was the first thing I purchased to begin my furniture collection," says Mr. Beard, who estimates he has 100 furnishings and accessories, from the plain folk style of an oak mortar and pestle made in the 1790s to ornate beds of cherry with upholstered taffeta canopies made in the 1850s.

"Buying Boyd's bed got me going. Even though I'd never heard of Boyd, I knew the historical importance of what he had done, and knew there had to be others like him whose work has gone unnoticed."

But the craftsmanship of such furniture makers as Boyd is getting noticed now in the exhibit "Our House: Early African-American Furniture Makers" at the Du Sable Museum of African-American History in Chicago.

About 20 pieces from Mr. Beard's collection are on loan for the exhibit, which continues through June 30.

"We're featuring furniture made and used by African-Americans," says Ramon Price, Du Sable's chief curator. "We're using the title 'Our House' for the exhibit as a kind of metaphor for our (African-American) history, as demonstrated in material culture objects."

Besides Boyd, furniture makers in Mr. Beard's collection include Thomas Day of Milton, N.C.; C. Lee of New Orleans; and William Coons of Warren County, Mo.

Most of the African-American craftsmen Mr. Beard collects were free men of color who worked their way out of slavery to start their furniture-making operations or were born free.

"There's a sense of pride to know these things were made by African-American people," says Mr. Beard, who started collecting art in the 1980s and got serious about furniture three years ago.

"My collecting of African-American art and furniture began as a hobby, but now it's my passion," he says.

Of the furniture makers in his collection, Thomas Day is the most documented. Museum curators and historians say Day sold furniture to dealers and customers, including Davis S. Reid, then governor of North Carolina. Day headed his own furniture-making shop in Milton, N.C., from 1824-1861.

Carroll Greene, director and curator of the Acacia Collection of African-American Artifacts in Savannah, Ga., and Patricia Phillips, chief curator of the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, say Day also had one of the largest furniture-making businesses in North Carolina.

But while Day turned heads in North Carolina, Lee was and still is one of Louisiana's favorite sons.

Lee trained under Mallard, a white furniture-maker in New Orleans whose style is Victorian.

Mr. Beard, who paid $9,500 for one of Lee's canopied beds, says Lee's "furniture is snapped up as soon as it comes up for sale."

He also has several of Day's pieces in his collection, including two side chairs, made of mahogany with seats upholstered in floral brocade; and a cherry sideboard table whose legs are shaped in an elongated "S." Another Day piece that Mr. Beard owns is a 9-foot-tall mahogany secretary with S-scroll designs on its double-glass doors and a hidden pull-out desk; the S-curve was Day's trademark.

Unlike Day, who made furniture for homes as well as churches and public buildings, Lee cast a royal spell in bedrooms. His ornate beds, made in the 1850s, have detailed, carved headboards, elaborate canopies of ruffles or pleats and 9-foot posters.

His beds are made of poplar, pine or cypress. He also is known for his serpentine side rails, paneled and bonneted headboards with C-scroll carvings and central egg-and-scroll medallions.

By contrast, Coons' designs are straightforward. His 1860s chairs are made in a country German style, which Coons improvised on to make his own. Coons' chairs are slightly thicker and heavier than the traditional Germanic form.

Mr. Beard's initial purchase is still the only piece of furniture he has by Boyd. Born in Kentucky, Boyd honed his craft and built his bedstead business in Cincinnati. He sold his beds to hotels in the South and Southwest, running a business that employed blacks and whites even though he was burned out three times during his career.

For the most part, these craftsmen worked in a Euro-American style, with some variations. African themes weren't reflected in their work because their customers wanted Euro-American traditions.

4 But Mr. Beard says there was some improvisation.

"The craftsmen didn't necessarily follow the tradition of the times on carving," he says. "You might find two-headed serpents, animal figures or facial figures that resemble African-Americans carved into the furniture, or furnishings unusually shaped or designed in scale."

"You will find a few pieces of furniture by African-Americans in museums in the South, but furniture is still an area most people are only now looking into," says Acacia's Carroll Greene, whose museum features some of Day's work. "People collect for the purpose of preservation, and the search continues for these craftsmen and their work."

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