Jerome Bias’ awakening came 15 years ago at Furnitureland South, the mega-size home furnishings store outside High Point.
“I was getting engaged and we needed a bed,” he said. “We marched around for an hour and finally found one we loved.”
What shocked Bias about the four-poster king even more than its $11,000 price tag was the information it came with.
“The tag said it was a reproduction of a piece made by Thomas Day, a free black cabinetmaker in North Carolina in the 1800s. I was dumbfounded,” he said. “Growing up, I thought that black folks were either in the field or the kitchen. I’d never heard of a free person, let alone a craftsman.”
As much as he loved the bed and its story, he couldn’t afford it, but he offered to make one for his fiancée.
“I’m not sure why I did that because I’d never made a thing in my life, nor had anyone in my family, at least not the men,” said Bias, 46, who rents a house on a dairy farm in Orange County, just outside Saxapahaw. “I’d always liked the idea of woodworking, and especially the idea of period woodworking, because I like the feel of doing things by hand.”
Not only did he learn to make the bed, he even stitched a quilt from his late grandmother’s dresses to go along with it. While the marriage didn’t last, Bias’s relationship with period woodworking thrived.
Before then, the eastern North Carolina native had not found his place in the world. He had struggled with dyslexia and what he described as a challenging childhood. Starting at age 10, he lived in Scotland Neck with his grandparents – his grandfather was John Henry Bias, second president of Elizabeth City State University.
After graduating from the N.C. School of Science and Math, Bias attended the College of Wooster in Ohio and earned a Bachelor of Arts in biology in 1990, followed by a series of unfulfilling jobs.
“I learned everything I could about woodworking over time and found a process of growth I never expected,” he said, discovering in himself patience, persistence and pride. After a few years, he started selling his furniture and giving demonstrations.
His work emulates 18th- and 19th-century styles, and pieces include blanket chests, bookcases, end tables, clocks and beds, including four-poster canopies.
He uses hand tools almost exclusively, except for an electric lathe. The difference, he said, is as much in the feel as the appearance.
“When I get through with a piece, when you put your hand on it, it’s alive. It gives a slight shimmer and it rolls under your hand.”
Since 2011, Bias has worked part-time at Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Winston-Salem as a historic tradesman, donning period costume while making furniture for the living history museum, which interprets the restored 18th-century Moravian community.
“It’s really cool because I get to be making furniture and show people how it’s done. We get a lot of schoolkids in. I show where math and science are involved, and I get to talk about decorative arts.”
Bias’ business, called Jerome Bias Woodworking, uses the term “CL woodworking,” for “celebrating life.”
“I get to celebrate eastern North Carolina and my Southern heritage,” he said. “It’s also a chance for me to educate people and for all of us to grow.”
He particularly appreciates the chance to expose African-Americans to Thomas Day, who lived in Milton, and to their place in the history of woodworking.
Along with Bias’ work at Old Salem, he’s on the board of directors at Historic Stagville, a former plantation in Durham County, and has been involved for several years with Crafting Freedom, a program that gives school teachers tools to integrate lessons about traditional artisans into its black history curriculum. Bias also is on the advisory committee of the annual African American Cultural Celebration, this year on Jan. 25 at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. The statewide kickoff for Black History Month showcases African-American heritage and culture with craft, dance, music, storytelling and film.
“I pack up my shop and bring it with me so people can see what I do,” he said. “One time I was surrounded by this crowd of African-American men and boys just staring at me and they were saying, ‘I didn’t know we did that stuff.’ That was so cool.”
Michelle Lanier, director of the N.C. African American Heritage Commission, which produces the festival, praised Bias’ skills and passion for education.
“I’ve seen people be very attracted to Jerome’s demonstrations and instantly curious,” she said. “That curiosity opens the door for engagement around a deeper understanding of our history and of the contributions of African-American intellect, creativity and cultural practices of the South. He takes his work very seriously. He’s really evoking and illuminating history for us all.”
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