After the Civil War, as freed slaves became sharecroppers and tenant farmers, white supremacist resistance often resorted to violence and many Black people were lynched there.
Decades later, when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, followed by the Voters Rights Act a year later, Blacks were successfully excluded from polling places. In fact, before March of 1965, researchers have found there was not one registered black voter in Lowndes County.
Poll taxes and literacy tests were used to block Blacks from voting – whites were excused from the regulations – and when activists tried to register voters, they often were arrested and sometimes killed.
Such was the case of a white Episcopalian seminarian, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who jumped in front of a 17-year-old black girl just as Thomas Coleman – a construction worker turned vigilante deputy embraced by the local sheriff – fired his shotgun.
Daniels was killed and a Catholic priest was shot in the back. The girl survived. Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury.
Against that backdrop, Thomas’ parents worked an 80-acre farm near the unincorporated crossroads of Calhoun in Lowndes County, which is between Selma and Montgomery. They raised four children.
“My parents worked in the fields and dealt with the tumultuous battle of Civil Rights,” Thomas said. “I was a little boy when Dr. King was killed, but I remember it.
“And I remember asking my mother years ago, ‘With all the things going on in Lowndes County and Montgomery and Selma – and you in the midst of it -- how did you even continue to go on?’
“My mother said, ’Well, I knew at some point that somebody would survive. We were hoping that our children would, even if we didn’t.”
Although Thomas’s oldest brother died in a car accident at 25, he, his sister and another brother did survive and thrive.
“At an early age my mother said to me: ‘I want you to finish high school and go to college. Somebody needs to do something a little different from what your father and I have done.’”
And Thomas certainly listened to his late mother:
- He was a high school cross country and track standout – specialized in the 800 meters, 1,500 and mile relay – and that got him a partial athletic scholarship to Alabama A&M.
- He was even more impressive in the classroom and after getting an English degree, he went on to get his master’s at Virginia State University and a PhD in English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
- He became a college educator and administrator, including being the interim president at Maryland Eastern Shore and at Middle Tennessee State and then serving as the president of Western Illinois University from 2011 to 2019.
- He’s an author. His “Within These Gates,” a book about academic work and leadership, was published in 2015. He’s now working on a second book about some of the racial challenges he’s experienced.
- He’s a preacher. He became an ordained Baptist minister five years ago – he was licensed in 2005 -- and already has drawn interest from churches in Cincinnati, Dayton and Cleveland once we get through these COVID times.
- He’s most proud that he is a husband – married to Dr. Linda Thomas (also of Lowndes County) for 34 years – and has sons who are 28 and 25.
- And July 1 he took over from Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond as the new CSU president.
“After being at two PWI (Predominately White Institutions) it feels good to get back to an HBCU,” he said. “With all the knowledge and experiences I’ve been through, it’s prepared me well to be a better leader.
“Some of the experiences were good, some were not, but I believe in learning from all of them and making the best from it.”
While there were some bumpy spots in his Western Illinois tenure, there were also notable accomplishments and he’ll need to draw on everything for these times, which he calls both “unprecedented and uncertain.”
We’re in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately has hit people of color and also has laid siege to some area colleges that have brought students back to campus, none more so than the University of Dayton, which as of Sept. 1, had had a state-high 970 COVID cases in 22 days.
There’s also the push for social justice that is roiling across the nation. After several unarmed Black people have been killed by police – or, in the recent Kenosha, Wis. case of Jacob Blake, shot seven times and left paralyzed – there have been protests and a Black Lives Matter push.
Those gatherings have, at times, been co-opted by rioters and looters, as well as by weapons-carrying right wing agitators, one of whom killed two people and wounded another in Kenosha.
Thomas understands the frustration and anger of protestors:
“When I look at the George Floyd situation and Breonna Taylor and the recent incident, it just keeps going on and on and doesn’t stop. It’s almost becoming the norm and that’s what is scary.
“It’s gotten to a point where people are saying ‘No more! We’re not taking it anymore. We’re standing up!’….I’m not for the violence and looting, but America has to pay attention to what people are saying and set the tone for our nation.”
Thomas said he’s long believed education is the key that best helps people facilitate change.
With that in mind, he’s hoping to make Central State “a special place.”
He has put out a list of nine goals he hopes to accomplish at the school, including starting an Honors College to bring in “the best and brightest,” some of whom, he noted, are already at the school.
To help launch a presidential scholarship, he just donated $50,000 of his salary. That sum was matched and now he’s begun a campaign to raise $1 million for the program.
When Thomas was a little boy, Jim Crow laws ruled his county.
“I went to a segregated school,” he said. “The text books I got already had writing in them. They came from the white schools. I didn’t know any different. That was just the norm.
“My parents sheltered me from all the racism, hatred and discrimination and I don’t remember being called the N-word until I was in college.”
Even though he was protected, life was still difficult in Lowndes County were 80 percent of Blacks lived below the poverty level.
To help the people exercise their right to vote, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was launched and led by the young civil rights leader, Stokely Carmichael. The group became the first independent Black political party in the county since Reconstruction and they adopted the black panther as an emblem.
“People think the Black Panthers started in Oakland, California, but they actually started in Lowndes County,” Thomas said,
Fast forward to 2004 and Thomas’s sister, Helenor Bell, became the first Black female mayor of Hayneville, the county seat.
“My dad didn’t want her to run because he was afraid something would happen to her,” Thomas said. “And her life was threatened, but she stood up to the challenge.”
As for Thomas, he used athletics as his vehicle and at A&M he began the lifelong friendship with his coach, Dr. Joseph Henderson, who he said still serves as “a second father” to him.
Thomas said the sports lessons he learned long ago – the determination, the will to win -- still guide him through his life today and especially in the way he deals with the students under his purview.
But when it comes to Marauders athletics this fall, all that is on hold.
CSU, in conjunction with its governing Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, has canceled all sports until the new year. Football is mothballed and basketball won’t start until January if an abbreviated schedule can be worked out.
“Of course it bothers me that we can’t compete,” Thomas said. “But first and foremost, we have to make sure our students are safe and we protect them.”
When Thomas and I met, it was the first day freshmen were allowed to move onto campus. Upperclassmen will follow this weekend.
Everyone, including the two family members allowed with each student, was wearing masks. They underwent initial temperature checks and were social distancing as best as they could.
Classes will start on Sept. 8 and for a week they will be online as all 2,000 students, faculty, staff and administrators are tested for the coronavirus. After that there will be a hybrid on instruction, with about half the classes online and half in person.
Thomas believes the school can control the situation because it is “a small university in a rural setting” and because, he hopes, students buy into what’s at stake.
They know people of color have been hit harder by the virus and they also understand the family-like embrace and nurturing that comes at an HBCU.
“If our students don’t handle it, then follow other institutions and be back fully online,” he said. “But with all the challenges we have, I think we have an opportunity to do wonderful things here this year.”
That’s kind of been the theme of his life, too.
As he sat in his office, he had a small stack of “Within These Gates” on the corner of his desk.
When you opened a book, you saw his dedication:
For my mother
Mrs. Eleanor “Bay” Thomas.
When I mentioned it, the emotion showed in his voice:
“It almost brings tears to my eyes even when I say that now. She passed before I actually finished the book, but she’s the one who instilled in me to get a college education.
“And now I’m saying, ‘Mama, I did what you told me to do!’”