Henry “Hank” James Thomas – One of the original Freedom Riders – Making his indelible mark in history; providing a legacy that continues

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When I think about Henry “Hank” James Thomas, and reflect on the many twists and turns that his life’s journey has brought him through, my thoughts go immediately to an old saying that we often hear – “to whom much is given, much is expected.  Except in Hank’s life, this statement seems to be upside down.  For Hank, he is one whose life is more accurately described as “from one who gave so much, and asked for so little, so much more was given unto the giver.”  He is a living example of how God can increase the territories of those who serve the multitudes.

The south claims Hank’s roots and he had many life-lessons from his mother, Tina Ree Heggs.  Born in Jacksonville, FL in 1941, he spent his youth in St. Augustine, FL and in Wadley, GA growing up and shaping his character.  The making of this man was kindled by what he witnessed as a child – spousal abuse of his mother, his own physical abuse from his step-father, and the lack of civil rights available to the people he loved in his immediate community.  This day-to-day existence in his life made him want to tackle the injustices that Black people endured.  Hank Thomas had an “itch” to do something . . . and he found himself speaking out, at 9 years of age, when a white insurance man called his aunt by her first name.  Another factor to note about this young man is that when Black people could not check out books from the local library, Hank talked his way into the all-white library where he would take his books, and sit among the white patrons, reading.  It was during this time that Thomas developed his gift of talking his way through his problems and persuading the opposition to see his side by using the Kings English.  This was his “Ah-Ha” moment and he realized that he was just as good as any man (especially the white man) who was trying to keep him in his “place.”

The Alabama summer heat caused Thomas to suffer a heat stroke which lead to his inability to accept his football scholarship at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College.  But fate stepped in and an elderly church friend help him get accepted at Howard University in Washington, DC.  The challenge was how to go to college without finances; but, Hank Thomas did it by talking his way into a job, when he was standing in the registration line at Howard.

While attending Howard, Thomas became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and in May,1961, he took a major step and signed up to be one of the first Freedom Riders. When asked why he would leave college to pursue this course, Thomas recalled a moment when he visited the grave of a slave relative named Tabilcha Washington and the gripping story about how she had been beaten many times but never gave in to the demands of her master. It was this desire to carry on her legacy that drove him to pursue the Freedom Riders.

And so, Thomas, along with other students, traveled on Greyhound and Trailways buses throughout the south protesting racial segregation and participating in many demonstrations.

A most momentous Freedom Ride started from Washington on May 4 and headed south with a bus load of approximately six white and seven Black students. The students had been given instructions, there was security on the bus, and there was contact with SNCC leaders about the status of the ride. On the Freedom Riders stop in Winnsboro, SC, the task assigned to Thomas was to go into a white-only rest room, while a white Freedom Rider was going into a colored- only rest room.  The white Rider was beaten; but Thomas got into the white restroom without being hit.  He was arrested while using the urinal and taken to jail.  He was retained in jail and later taken back to the bus station after dark when the station was closed. He was left at the station to face a mob waiting to attack and most likely kill him.  Thomas took off running down a street, to nowhere in particular, when Reverend Ivy (a black man) picked him up and drove him to Benedict College in Columbus, SC.  The next day, he made his way to Atlanta, GA and re-joined his team of Freedom Riders.

The Freedom Riders continued their journey on May 14, Mothers’ Day, of 1961, in a Greyhound bus headed to Anniston, AL,  a southern city with a fairly large black population, a  well-established NAACP Branch, and some aggressive and violent Klansmen. The Freedom Riders had been cautioned about the mob waiting when the bus was to arrive at the Anniston bus station.  As the bus parked, and the driver departed, the bus was overcome by a mob of about 50 people led by a KKK boss, William Chappell. The people in the mob were armed with weapons, and proceeded to throw things, break windows, and cause harm to the riders on the bus. Anniston police were slow to arrive at the scene, but when they did, the bus was escorted to city limits. After passing through the city limits, the police escorts left, and the mob came back to the bus. Two flat tires caused the bus to stop on the side of the road, leaving the riders open to the mob. A flaming bundle of rags were thrown through the window which caused the bus to catch fire. Thomas, as well as the other riders, was only able to make it out because the mob dispersed when they saw the bus was burning. Thomas, the first to get off the bus, was struck in the head with a bat and appeared to have lost consciousness. Just about all the Freedom Riders needed medical attention, but the hospital they were taken to did not serve colored people.

The first Freedom Rides ended shortly after the situation in Anniston. In spite of the injury sustained by Thomas, he participated in a second Freedom Ride from Montgomery, AL to Jackson, MS ten days later. On this occasion, he was incarcerated at the Parchman State Prison Farm but was released on bail after a short time.  On August 22, 1961, he became the first rider to appeal this conviction for the breach of peace.

In 1963, Thomas served in the Vietnam War as a medic. In 1966 he was ambushed in Vietnam, shot and left for dead, spending six months as a wounded soldier at Walter Reed Army Hospital.  He was awarded a purple heart upon his discharge. In 1993, he was one of three GI’s to go back to Vietnam to meet North Vietnamese veterans in a reconciliation meeting of former enemy combatants; Tomas said, “I lost tears and blood in Vietnam and I want to go back to the ground on which they fell.”

A new life awaited Hank Thomas as he pondered what course of action to take.  Atlanta was the place to be because it offered opportunities for Black people who were willing to work hard to get ahead.  Thomas moved to Atlanta and got started on his long career as an entrepreneur.  The first business that he started with a friend was laundry machines.  Hank credits Herman Russell as the man who gave him a chance to put laundry machines in the apartments that Russell owned.  With the success of the laundry machines, he ventured into owning a laundromat.  Moving up the ladder to a more profitable enterprise, he entered the franchise business with the opening of two Dairy Queen Restaurants. Another business venture took him to Burger King and he became a franchisee with a restaurant in southwest Atlanta.

But Hank really hit the big time when he met his soul mate and his business partner for life, Yvonne Johnson. Passing through the C&S Bank in his white Dairy Queen outfit (uniform), he  showed up on a regular basis to make deposits and Yvonne was his banking officer.  Eventually, he made the best withdrawal of all from the bank when these two got married.

The golden arches of McDonalds is where Hank found the beginning of the rainbow.  He eventually owned six McDonalds and made his mark in the Atlanta business community.  My life crossed paths with Hank and Yvonne Thomas, and the Hayon Group, Inc., when they, as Black McDonald owners of franchise restaurants, allowed me and my company, First Class, Inc. to represented the organization – Black McDonald Owners.

Continuing to grow, this business team – Hank and Yvonne Thomas – grew their business further into the hospitality industry.  Under the name of Victoria Hospitality Properties, Inc., also lead by Thomas as its president, they owned four Marriott brands which included two Fairfield Inns, and two Towne Place Suites located in Macon, GA, Columbus, SC, and Jackson, NC.  Currently they own one hotel, a Fairfield Inn, in Jackson, NC.

Hank Thomas is recognized as a history maker on many occasions including being honored at a Freedom Fighters Appreciation Banquet at the Willie Galimore Community Center in 1992.  He served as chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Riders 50th Reunion Foundation in 2011

Thomas is a civic leader, and has been on the boards of the APEX Museum, the Butler Street YMCA, the Atlanta Youth Academy, and the Atlanta’s Boys and Girls Club. He was formerly a Vice Chair of the Piney Woods School in Jackson, Mississippi, and currently he serves on the Board of Trustees of Talladega College, Tugaloo College,  and Morehouse School of Medicine. Hank Thomas received the “Buffalo Soldier” Award from Howard University in 2006. In 2011, he was inducted into the International Civil Rights “Walk of Fame.”  He has receiving the “For my People” Award from Jackson State University, and the Rabbi Perry Nausbaum Civil Justice Award. In addition, Thomas has received the 365 Black Award given by McDonald’s Inc.

To this day, Thomas is still a civil rights activist, and is a substantial participant in community involvement. He is a life member of the NAACP.  Hank and Yvonne are parents of two and have four grandchildren.  They are active members of the Midway Missionary Baptist Church in College Park.  He has been a part of a might big history, and we are so proud of him.

This history maker wants his legacy to reveal the necessity for dreaming big dreams.  He says, “Everything I have now, I have dreamed about— my family, my home, my success through the businesses I have been involved with, the community in which I live – was a part of my dream.  But you must be careful not to let this culture we live in beat the dream out of you.”

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