Henry “Hank” James Thomas was born on August 29, 1941 in Jacksonville, Florida. Thomas spent most of his childhood in St. Augustine, Florida. He started protesting racial injustices very early in life. In the novel Breach of Peace, Thomas explains that “rebellion came natural” to him. He recalls that at age 9 or 10, he corrected a white insurance man who addressed his aunt using her first name only, not her last. Later on, when blacks were not allowed to check out books in the library, Thomas would take his own books there to read.
As he grew up, he participated in sit-ins, and sat in white seats on local buses. Thomas went to college at Howard University in Washington D.C. Here he was an active participant in the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). His goal for Civil Rights became even stronger as he heard about the sit-in movements going on in Greensboro. Inspired by these movements, Thomas helped to organize, as well as participated in, early movements in Maryland and in Virginia.
On May 4, 1961, Hank Thomas joined the first Freedom Rider group. Originally, he was not going to participate, but his roommate, who was supposed to partake in the event, got sick and was unable to attend. Thomas took his place. The rides went as expected until May 14, Mothers’ Day, of 1961. The Greyhound bus Thomas was riding made its way into Anniston, Alabama where the bus was set upon by Klansmen and burned. The first Freedom Ride ended shortly after the events in Anniston. Although Thomas was injured, and injected with a sense of fear, he participated in a second Freedom Ride from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi 10 days later. This time, he was incarcerated and served time at the Parchman State Prison Farm. Thomas was soon after released on bail, and on August 22, 1961, he became the first rider to appeal his conviction for the breach of peace. Hank Thomas is one of four surviving members of the thirteen original “Freedom Riders”.
A Change Will Come
Hank Thomas, a young man who was abandoned by his father and raised by an abusive alcoholic stepfather now stands as a true mark of what a man should represent. Rather than dwell in bitterness and hatred, Mr. Thomas chose to find understanding.
Hank Thomas describes the man who stepped in, when his father stepped out as “Mister” in the Color Purple. “He was mean!” Thomas says. Yet, Mr. Thomas has still found compassion in his circumstance as he remembers his stepfather’s reference of his treatment by White people with saying, “I would rather die and go to hell than to live and be treated the way I am being treated.”
Though it didn’t garner immediate forgiveness, it later granted understanding, as Thomas says, “How can a man come home and be loving and kind to his children when he’s been abused and humiliated every single day. I understand the kind of society that made him the way he was. For the Black men and women who could still come home and give love to their children, they were super human people.”
Thomas credits his strength to his mother, Tiny Heggs, who now 92, taught him to read by the age of 4, with a sixth grade education. With everything she endured, the physical, verbal and psychological abuse, she never hated his stepfather. In fact, she taught Thomas that you “never want to mistreat someone because of how you’ve been mistreated.”
Hank Thomas knew what justice was just as clearly as he knew injustice. Even though he grew up in St. Augustine, FL where White people lived on one side of the street and Black people on the other, segregation was still very present. “I always knew something wasn’t right,” he says as he admits how he “deliberately violated the rules of segregation.”
“St. Augustine was a most unusual Southern town, very paternalistic, but I can truly say while I was growing up, I never witnessed or heard of an act of violence by White people against Blacks. On the street that I lived on, there were just as many White people as there were Black people. You didn’t have those rigid lines of segregation that you would see in a lot of cities. No hostility, we played with White kids, they would come to our house and we would go to theirs, but at the age of 10 or so, the White kids knew you went your separate ways.”
There is only a small portion of his life as a Civil Rights icon that we hear about, but Mr. Thomas has been in the midst of much more, some of which he’s aware, “had [he] lived in any other Southern city, say Birmingham or Montgomery, there’s a great possibility, [he] wouldn’t be alive today,” he says as he tells of how he would drink out of the “White” water fountain, go to the public library even though they wouldn’t give him a book and even refused to sit on the back of the bus.