Tell us about yourself, Thomas:
I was born in Gaston, Alabama, but after a few months, my family moved to Buffalo and then to New York City, where I grew up in the Bronx. I was brought up in the Baptist Church because of my grandmother. She said, “We
go to church.” And we said, “Yes, ma’am.” I was never tied in. It was just the church I attended. I went to a couple private undergraduate-graduate schools in New York City.
What was it like growing up in New York City?
I was very fortunate to be raised there because I had access to people who spoke about freedom for blacks. Every Saturday at a speaker’s corner in Harlem, we heard different people – including Malcolm X – talking about oppression and inequality. As I listened, I realized how oppressive the country and people can be, and I looked for a way to get involved and affect change. It fueled the fire in me, so to speak, and I got involved in the civil rights movement. I was only one person, but every person counts.
Tell us more about your involvement:
In 1961 or ’62, I took a bus with a friend from New York to Virginia. The farther south we went, the greater the segregation became. The bus would stop for meals, and we’d go into a restaurant. But a police officer would come in and read the state law that they didn’t have to serve African-Americans. We were asked to leave, and we did. Long story short, I ended up working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1962 to 1968.
Dr. King was the first president of the SCLC – an African-American civil rights organization.
Dr. King personally trained us on how to peacefully engage in civil disobedience, which was foreign to me because I was from the South Bronx, where you deal with an eye for an eye. Actually, you punch the other guy’s eye first.
What did you do with the SCLC?
We worked with different organizations on voter registration. We would go into cities and towns to educate African-Americans on their right to vote and devise strategies about how to do that. For example, it was best to vote when white folks were at work so there’d be less of a crowd to threaten and harass you.
We worked to desegregate lunch counters. We’d go in and ask to be served, and if they didn’t serve us, we’d raise hell – a nonviolent hell – and they would arrest us, and we’d spend a night or two in jail – on trumped up charges, of course. In jail, the rule was: don’t eat the food and don’t drink the water because you don’t know what they’ve done before it gets to you. We always had attorneys who bailed us out.
What other memories do you have of that time in the South?
One day, a police officer picked up a whites-only trash can and threw it at the car I was driving and arrested me for damaging city property. You couldn’t fight them. Your best bet was to surrender, and say “O.K. Yes, officer” – the same thing we have to tell our young people to do today. There is no difference, except today we have cameras on our cell phones.
How did you manage this work while going to college?
I had a wonderful agreement with all my instructors. I’d say, “Give me the syllabus at the beginning of the year, and I’ll get your work done.” It took me two extra years to graduate, but that’s O.K. Greyhound knew me well – I’d be on that bus like mad between New York and the South.
You told me earlier you don’t often speak of those days.
I worked with a lot of people who I respected, and who had the same values I had. Many of them were older than me. As I grow older – I’ll be 79 in May – I’ll read that one of them has died. They are people I demonstrated with and went to jail with. It’s a painful thing because it brings back memories, and it’s a type of post traumatic stress, if you will. These are people who got hit with bricks and were spat upon – as I was. But that was part of life in terms of what we wanted to achieve, and what we did to achieve it.
Tell us about your career:
I’ve been a stockbroker, a banker, an educator, a K-12 administrator and a university administrator. I’ve been employed at six different colleges and universities – I can’t hold a job (laughter). I retired in 2008 as coordinator of community relations for Clovis Unified School District.
How is retirement?
I love the outdoors and belong to the Sierra Club. I also participate as an athlete in the Senior Games. I power walk. I ran track and field when I was younger. But my doctor took a look at my knees said I needed to take up another sport – like checkers (laughter). Elizabeth and I also go to La Jolla to see our grandsons – “my guys” – as often as we can.
How did you two meet?
We had offices in the same college building, and I had a wonderful secretary – Florence Stoller. She was a grandmotherly Jewish woman I absolutely loved. She was my spell checker before there was spell check. Florence was my lookout. When she saw Elizabeth coming, she’d knock on my door, and I’d rush out and throw myself in her path.
What brought you to Community UCC?
When we were scouting for a church in Fresno, we looked at the values and concerns of different churches. Some say one thing, but there’s a hypocritical side, quite frankly, which contradicts what they profess. I did not find that at this church. We were welcomed with warm smiles, and I liked the sermon topics, the church’s liberal leaning, and its working to improve the community.
What church activities are you involved with?
I don’t chair anything or lead anything. I go to meetings sparingly – I had enough of those professionally. I support my wife totally wherever I can in what she wants to do at church.
What do you find special or different about Community UCC?
About once a month, I go to another church – small churches, large churches – to see how I’m welcomed. When I go back to our church, I appreciate it so much because of our values. It’s always good to come home.
What’s your vision for the church?
That we constantly move forward, constantly try to reach new people, and expand upon our values. Elizabeth calls it social justice, and I pretty much agree with my wife – as usual (laughter). It’s safer that way.
What’s one thing about you that would surprise people?
My chief hobby is learning, understanding and appreciating black history. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always been fascinated with what black people have contributed to the world. About 40 years ago, I started looking at that history before 1619 (the year Africans were brought to the English colony in Virginia). Many people think the African-American experience began when black people hit this country, but study will tell you more about the involvement of black people globally. For example, the Greeks learned mathematics from Ethiopians. That fascinates me.
How would classmates in high school have described you?
I’m in contact with seven or eight of my friends from high school. I’m assuming they would describe me as being successful in high school. I was a good athlete – basketball and track and field. I was Athlete of the Year. I think they’d also say I was a nice guy and outgoing.