November 17, 2017 - Vol. 1, Issue 11
The Tom Thumb Wedding 8
A Tom Thumb Wedding 9
Jeni LeGon
Steven A. Minter
Bishop T.D. Jakes
While reflecting upon her childhood in Chicago, Illinois, dancer, actress and HistoryMaker Jeni LeGon remembers playing the role of a bride in her neighborhood’s Tom Thumb wedding: “ One time we did a Tom Thumb wedding. You know what they were--when the kids dressed like grownups and they did this wedding. And Ray Nance was the preacher, I was the bride, and a set of brothers were the groom and the best man. And when we were rehearsing, he'd say well, ‘Do you take this woman to be your bride,’ and one of them would say, ‘Yes,’ and the other would say, “Yes.’ And after the performance--it was in the winter time --we had a little party” 1 [Jeni LeGon, THMDA 1.1.10].

In 1863, popular P.T. Barnum circus performer Charles Sherwood Stratton was married to fellow performer Lavinia Warren in a lavish New York City wedding. Both born with dwarfism, the widely publicized celebration was referred to as the “Fairy Wedding” and as “Tom Thumb’s wedding,” based on a stage name Stratton had adopted from Thomas Langley’s English fairy tale. Once spectacle, the concept of the Tom Thumb wedding gradually evolved over the years to hold a place of ritual prominence within the church, particularly within the African American community. 2

In Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies, Lynne Vallone recalls the tradition's advent as being a church ritual: “The Tom Thumb wedding mimics the wedding of Stratton and Warren through the use of child participants—playing the roles of bride and groom and attendants and often acting as the minister, too. The events were typically staged either as parodies in which the wedding vows were played for laughs or as serious miniaturizations of the entire ceremony in which the intention was to both charming and solemn. In either case, the Tom Thumb wedding was intended to provide pleasure for both the child participants and their mothers, who would sew elaborate miniature gowns and suits, organize the flowers and prepare the food. Child-appropriate vows—whether humorous or serious—created the play-script and wedding cake the refreshments. Often, tickets were sold to the guests so that Tom Thumb weddings could raise funds for the sponsoring church. Tom Thumb weddings, which survive today primarily in African American churches, unite childhood, performance, and profit.” 3

Growing up in Warren Township, Ohio, university executive and former foundation executive Steven A. Minter recalls how the folkloric rite instilled the importance of the church within his life: “We attended a very small Baptist Church. And, I remember participating in what they called the Tom Thumb weddings. And, usually, I was the preacher because the people would say, ‘Oh, that boy he, he reads so well. He speaks so well.” Probably no more than thirty, forty people attended these churches. But it was a very important thing for, as I said, more so my mother than my father that we participate. And that had a lot of influence on me” 4 [Steven A. Minter, THMDA 1.2.7].

Of this cultivation of values, Jessie Carney Smith states in Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture: “Tom Thumb weddings and other children’s events that provide other opportunities to instill black culture through socially accepted behaviors” and “deepen the theological witness of the community.” 5

Echoing Minter, pastor, author and HistoryMaker Bishop T.D. Jakes recalls that the presence of community and ritual fostered tied to the church: “The church for the black community is more than about faith; it was the stage we were permitted on. It was where we learned to speak. It was where we were allowed to sing. It was where we coalesced in times of crisis. And so there were a whole lot of dynamics to the church that continues to be relevant to who we are today and how we see faith today. I can remember being in a Tom Thumb wedding (laughter)...they were measuring me for this tux, you know, and I can’t remember who I was in the wedding. I don’t know whether I was the groom or a best man or something. But I can remember being measured for a tux, and all the parents had all the kids out in this Tom Thumb wedding. And so...all of my life I’ve been somewhere around the church and as were most of the people in my community” 6 [Bishop T.D. Jakes, THMDA 1.2.1]. 

Vallone succinctly captures the Tom Thumb wedding ritual as “the reproduction of an idealized, or model, wedding on a miniature scale. The Tom Thumb wedding reproduces our fondest hopes for social and cultural significance of the wedding ceremony: commitment, blessing, ‘normality’ and social stability. And it does so in a contained and ritualistic manner.” 7
The HistoryMakers Celebrates Franklin A. Thomas
This past Saturday, November 11, 2017, The HistoryMakers celebrated nonprofit executive extraordinaire Franklin A. Thomas in An Evening with Franklin Thomas , hosted at the AXA Equitable Center in New York City. Close friends of Thomas, including but not limited to foundation president Darren Walker , feminist icon Gloria Steinem and lawyer and activist Vernon E. Jordan, Jr ., gathered to celebrate Thomas’ lifetime achievements.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934, Thomas earned his B.A. degree and law degree from Columbia University. After serving as an assistant U.S. attorney and the New York City Police Commissioner for legal affairs, Thomas became the first president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, one of the nation’s earliest community development corporations. Under his leadership from 1967 to 1977, the organization achieved the restoration of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s historic brownstones by local youth; the establishment of the Billie Holiday Theatre; and the creation of a $21 million mortgage pool for the community, which had been previously redlined.

Thomas served as the chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Study Commission on U.S. Policy Toward South Africa from 1979 to 1981, and produced the comprehensive report on apartheid , Time Running Out . In June 1979, Thomas was elected President of the Ford Foundation. In this role, he facilitated the first meeting of the African National Congress and the Afrikaner Broederbond in 1986, which laid the groundwork for the freedom of South Africa.

During the seventeen years that Thomas led the Ford Foundation, its assets quadrupled. His grant programs focused on practical methods of poverty alleviation in rural and urban contexts across the world, until his retirement in 1996. Thomas was a director and trustee of numerous corporate and not for profit boards and served as an advisor to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. From 2001 to 2006, Thomas was chairman of the September 11 th Fund, where he was responsible for $500 million in direct relief and economic development initiatives for victims, their families and affected communities.

Corporate CEO and longtime friend of Thomas, Henry Schacht, characterized him best in his testimonial for the celebration: "One of the greats of my generation. He's a leader in everything that matters in our society."
This week, 16 new interviews were added to The HistoryMakers Digital Archive:
Franklin A. Thomas

Nonprofit chief executive Franklin A. Thomas (1934 - ) served as president of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and Ford Foundation, and was instrumental in the end of South African apartheid.
Lula Ford

Education executive, state government appointee, and elementary school principal Lula Ford (1944 - ) held teaching, administrative and counseling positions at several of the Chicago Public Schools before becoming the district's assistant superintendent. She also served on the Illinois Commerce Commission.
Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr.

English professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. (1950 - ) extended the application of the concept of “signifyin(g)” to analysis of African American works and thus rooted African American literary criticism in the African American vernacular tradition. The work gained Gates critical acclaim nationally, and he quickly translated his success into a more mainstream career as a “public intellectual.”
Paul Stewart

Curator Paul Stewart (1925 - 2015 ) created a collection of 35,000 artifacts related to black cowboys of the American West, which became the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center in the Five Points district of Denver, Colorado.
Wilfred D. Samuels

Nonprofit chief executive and african american studies professor Wilfred D. Samuels (1947 - ) founded the African American Literature and Culture Society (AALCS). Samuels was Associate Professor and Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Utah. He lectured in England, Africa, Japan and throughout Southeast Asia.
The Honorable Ertharin Cousin

Food service executive and foreign ambassador The Honorable Ertharin Cousin (1957 - ) served as a chief executive of several corporations, worked extensively with food relief charities like Feeding America and continued to promote food equity in her role as the U.S. ambassador to the UN agencies for food and agriculture.
The Honorable Hugh Barrington Clarke, Jr.

Defense lawyer and judge The Honorable Hugh Barrington Clarke, Jr. (1954 - ) represented high profile clients like rapper Tupac Shakur and NFL football player Mushin Muhammad.
Cheryl Blackwell Bryson

Corporate lawyer Cheryl Blackwell Bryson (1950 - 2012 ) was a partner at the law firm of Duane Morris LLP, and served as the Deputy Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago Law Department, where she directed contract administration and collective bargaining for the city's 35,000 unionized employees.
Deborah Wright

Bank chairman Deborah Wright (1958 - ) was chief executive officer of Carver Bancorp and chairman of Carver Federal Savings Bank. She also served as New York City's Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development, and as director of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation.
Gwendolyn Smith Iloani

Investment executive Gwendolyn Smith Iloani (1955 - ) was the founder, chairwoman, president and CEO of Smith Whiley and Company, the nation's fourth-largest black-owned private equity firm.

Clovis Prince

Corporate chief executive Clovis Prince (1950 - ) founded Prince & Associates, a telecommunications consulting firm that was instrumental in the construction of cellular network infrastructure in the United States and abroad. He negotiated the nation's largest independent monopole agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation.
Reverend Dr. Elaine Flake

Pastor Reverend Dr. Elaine Flake (1948 - ) was a pastor at the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in New York City, a co-founder of the Allen Christian School and the author of God in Her Midst: Preaching Healing to Hurting Women.
Bishop T.D. Jakes

Bishop Bishop T.D. Jakes (1957 - ) was a leading televangelist and the pastor of The Potter's House megachurch in Dallas, Texas.

Opalanga D. Pugh

Professional storyteller Opalanga D. Pugh (1952 - 2010 ) was a scholar of African oral traditions who facilitated ceremonies and workshops across the United States, Canada, West Africa and the Caribbean.

Dori Wilson

Public relations executive and model Dori Wilson (1943 - ) was the founder of Dori Wilson Public Relations and the first African American runway model in Chicago, Illinois.

Dr. Carl Bell

Psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell (1947 - ) served as the medical director, president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council, one of the largest not-for-profit community mental health centers in the U.S. He was a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Illinois School of Medicine and School of Public Health.

1.     Jeni LeGon (The HistoryMakers A2004.113), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 28, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Jeni LeGon recalls performances from her childhood
2.     Anna Kerchy, Andrea Zittlau, Exploring the Cultural History of Continental European Freak Shows and ‘Enfreakment’  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, February 14, 2013.
3.     Lynne Vallone, Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies. Yale University Press, November 7, 2017.
4.     Steven A. Minter (The HistoryMakers A2005.007), interviewed by Regennia Williams, January 11, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 7, Steven A. Minter describes holiday celebrations and the church
5.     Jessie Carney Smith, Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture . ABC-CLIO, December 17, 2010.
6.      Bishop T.D. Jakes (The HistoryMakers A2010.106), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 25, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Bishop T.D. Jakes recalls his early experiences of religion
7.     Lynne Vallone, Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies. Yale University Press, November 7, 2017.
9.     Children play the bride and groom at Tom Thumb wedding. Creator: Jackson, Frank R. 1908-2007. Can be found:

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