Born a slave, Richard “Dick” Poyner eventually would use the art of chair making to support his life as a freed man, and in the process, create a piece of furniture that has become a highly sought after collector’s item to this day.
Born a slave, Richard “Dick” Poyner would eventually use the art of chairmaking to support his life as a freed man, and in the process, create a piece of furniture that has become a highly sought after collector’s item to this day.
Historian Rick Warwick of the Heritage Foundation in Franklin has written extensively of Poyner and his path to freedom. He first heard about the chairmaker in the 1970s, and went out to Leiper’s Fork to interview families whose ancestors may have known him.
“It was secondhand, but it was just once removed,” Warwick said.
“Their parents or grandparents thought highly of him, respected him as great craftsman and individual. It’s just a great American story. A man born in bondage and is able to survive, and become a part of the community.”
Dick Poyner was born into the Robert Poyner family in Halifax County, VA, and moved into Williamson County in 1816. Robert Poyner died in 1848 before writing a will and possibly granting Dick his freedom, but two years later, Dick took out ads in the newspaper for his chairs, and claimed he was a free man.
“It’s a mysterious because there’s no record in county that he was emancipated in any way,” Warwick said.
“But his ads in the newspaper says he’s on his own book, which is an indication ‘I’m my own man.’ So it remains a kind of a mystery how exactly he became a free man.”
Despite the hole in Poyner’s history, what is known is that he was able to purchase a 150-acre farm, become accepted by an all white community, and create one of the most successful chairmaking factories – a skill Warwick believes his slave owner Robert taught him.
“He was just a wonderful character from the people I talked to years ago. He was a very respected man, highly skilled, and his chairs have survived in great detail.”
The Poyner chairs are now a prized item throughout the country. Warwick said he’s had more than a 100 in his time collecting, and has donated chairs to the Yale Art Department, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative arts in North Carolina, the Tennessee State Museum, as well as the Carter House and Ravenswood Mansion in Williamson County.
He said the last Poyner chair sold at auction for $925 for the Heritage Foundation.
“They’re very durable, you can’t tear them apart. They’re sturdy, lightweight, handsomely put together. They’re graceful, with an arching back and sit good. They are as useful today as they were 150 years ago. And you just can’t beat quality.”
Still, Warwick believes it is the history of a freed black man who became one with a Southern community, even throughout the Civil War, that gives the chair an added desire. Poyner died a natural death in 1882.
On April 7, 1882, Poyner’s obituary read:
“He was one of the best known citizens of old Williamson, and was honored by all who knew him. Though a colored man, he enjoyed all the esteem and confidence of all parties of every race. He was honest, industrious and was a living monument of what any man of any race can do who thus demeans himself. He was a consistent member of the Primitive Baptist Church and was about 81-years-old. Would to God we had more such men than we have!”
Jonathan Romeo covers Brentwood for Home Page Media Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org