This post is part of a blog series revealing the table of contents of upcoming Issue Eleven. As is our custom, we’ll be discussing one article per weekday in order to give you a taste of what is come.
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Chair made by Richard Poynor. Photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.
Hunter S. Rhodes – “On His Own Book: The Story of Chairmaker Richard Poynor”
The study of the furniture makers of early America often focuses on prominent names in major East-coast cities. Often overlooked are the rural craftsmen who labored in obscurity, but even more forgotten are the enslaved artisans whose work was often credited to their shop masters. Black furniture makers were almost never afforded the opportunity to even sign their own work, let alone gain any widespread recognition for excellence. But 19th-century Tennessee chairmaker Richard Poynor overcame all this.
Author and researcher Hunter S. Rhodes walks us through the trials and triumphs of Poynor’s remarkable life. Born into slavery in 1802, Poynor learned the trade of chairmaking to a degree of skill few attained. After the death of his enslaver Robert Poynor in 1848, he gained his freedom and immediately opened his own chair shop, advertising himself (rather than his former master) as “the Original maker of the celebrated ‘Poynor Chairs.’” His success led him to expand operations, and he continued to produce a variety of beautiful and enduring chairs until at least the age of 71.
Poyner was widely respected in his community, was a member in good standing of a mostly white church congregation, and was mourned by his community when he passed. As a notice in his local newspaper read upon announcing the news of his death, he was “one of the best known citizens of old Williamson, and was honored by all who knew him.”
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