By Rhonda K. Craven 2012—
After the Civil War, the Village of Evanston witnessed an influx of former slaves, and many parlayed their skills into businesses. One who became a multi-faceted entrepreneur and earned the respect of both blacks and whites was the highly popular young man, Richard Day.
a colored man of individuality
Born Richard Mussleman in Harrison, KY around 1848, he took the surname of his last slavemaster, Day. By 1870, he owned a home on the northeast corner of Judson Avenue and Dempster Street and was custodian of the Congregational Church. In a 1929 account of the Village’s early days, Frederick E. French described Day as “a colored man of individuality” noted for telling slave stories, including “how he stole his way from Georgia into Illinois, and narrowly escaped being killed by Confederate soldiers.” French also reported that Day entertained him and his friends, who were ten years old at the time, by giving wrestling exhibitions.
In summer of 1873, Day and another young black man, John Smith, promoted their Davis Street-based lawn cutting business through The Evanston Index. A year later, this ad ran:
Take Notice!—Richard Day is ready to black your stoves, and put them up, put in brick, new castings, etc. I will make that my business, and do it nicely. Please let me know in time. Leave your orders at C. J. Wigren and Co.’s hardware store, Davis st., east of the post-office.
He joined the (First) Baptist church in 1875. When he married Addie Grayson of Battle Creek, MI that summer, the marriage certificate listed him as a machinist. Day was known as “Richard the Lawn Cutter”, identifiable by the badge on his hat. Many Index testimonials bore witness to the high esteem he had earned from his customers. One wrote that “He does our lawn cutting to our complete satisfaction.”
By spring 1876, the Index was pointing its readers to Day’s advertisement that showed how his businesses had expanded to include calsomining, whitewashing and carpet laying and cleaning. He later added an express wagon that allowed him to “move stoves and other goods very cheaply.”
The carpet business was where Day particularly distinguished himself.
We can cheerfully recommend Richard Day as being one of the best carpet layers ever employed by us. No one can lay a carpet better; so don’t go to the city when you want that work done. Richard says that he will thereafter make that his special business. We notice that he has invented an improved method of cleaning carpets, which works to a charm. Richard has followed this business longer than any one in Evanston, and is the best one at this work. See him in time, and he will please you. He lives on the corner of Judson avenue and Dempster street. —Evanston Index, November 5, 1881
Mr. Richard Day, the favorite carpet cleaner, has invented an arrangement for holding the carpet while it is being beaten, which really deserves special mention. A frame work, with six upright posts in the ground, was built; a large roller, working with a handle, is stretched across the end at the lower part of the two uprights. The carpet is fastened to this roller and then drawn up over the frame work, leaving a part of it in a good position for beating. As fast as cleaned the carpet is rolled up. The advantages of this plan over the old way of hanging over a line are that the dust is blown away, instead of being beaten from side to side; besides the man can use his entire strength in the beating and does not waste half his strength in holding out the carpet. Mr. Day has a large number of customers, and by this plan he is enabled to do the work quicker and much better. His success in his business is well earned. —Evanston Index, April 8, 1882
Day also gave horse-riding lessons and had a poultry market on Davis Street near Fountain Square. Because of his healing powers, he occasionally worked as a nurse and relieved many maladies. He also hired out women to clean homes.
His community involvement included holding offices in the Good Templars and the Mount Moriah Lodge. In July of 1882, he chaired the society of black Baptists and Methodists that held union religious services over the post office on Davis Street west of Chicago Avenue. This gathering led to the organization of both Ebenezer A.M.E. and Second Baptist Churches that fall. Day also organized a group of black Republicans in 1888 and served as president of the marching club. At Thanksgiving, when the Index asked select citizens what they were grateful for, he was glad that “he did not lose his drum major hat at election.”
He and his wife had five children, but only two boys survived. Walter and Jewell attended the local schools and were often neither tardy nor absent. Later, Walter became a pressman for the Index, and Jewell worked at a local bakery.
Day became ill in 1890 and couldn’t work for some time. In hopes that his health would improve, he moved to Colorado Springs.
Richard Day, who for years has been one of the features of Evanston, his work having brought him into close relationship with many families here, is about to leave for Colorado, and will take with him many warm wishes from his friends, both white and colored. —Evanston Index, December 12, 1890
His condition briefly improved but later worsened, so Day returned to Evanston. On September 3, 1891, he died of consumption at his home. Services were held at Second Baptist, and the interment was at Rose Hill.
Though many other early Evanston blacks distinguished themselves in a variety of professions, Richard Day stands out as one of the most prolific and successful.
Notes: Evanston Index; July 5, 1873, September 12, 1874, June 19, 1875, April 29, 1876, September 21, 1878, November 5, 1881, April 8, 1882, December 1, 1888 and December 12, 1890. Evanston Directory 1883, 1884. Illustration from Evanston Directory display ad 1884, page 134. © Rhonda K. Craven 2012