By Cliff McCarthy

(An early version of this story appears on the website “Freedom Stories of the Pioneer Valley” (https://freedomstoriespv.wordpress.com) and is used with permission.)

Thomas Thomas was a legendary figure in Springfield’s African American community.   He was a great story-teller and, as is often the case, his tales have been reported many times over the years, making it difficult to sort the facts from the fiction.

He was born a slave in Oxford, Maryland in 1817, the son of Joseph and Sophia (Giles) Thomas.[1]  He worked on Chesapeake River steamboats as a waiter when he was a boy.  During this period, he supposedly met Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnett, two black men whose fame would grow over the next decades.[2]

As a young man, Thomas was “hired out” to work on the Mississippi River steamboats, where he eventually earned enough to buy his freedom.  He continued to work the Arkansas and Mississippi river trade out of New Orleans and into Indian Territory.[3]  He also operated as an entrepreneur, buying vegetables and dairy products cheap and selling them at a profit in the cities.  He was jailed, once, in Louisiana for violating its laws against free blacks entering the state and he was forced to leave that state.[4]  He eventually landed in Springfield, Massachusetts around 1843-44, where his mother and sister had already settled.  He went to work in the Hampden House hotel, at Court and Main Streets, and later at the Union House, near the railroad depot on Bliss Street.[5]

There, he became acquainted with abolitionist John Brown, who had opened his wool business in the same neighborhood and hired Thomas to work in the wool sorting rooms.  Of Brown, Thomas said:

When he was here he was smooth-faced and had black, heavy hair brushed straight up from his forehead. He always dressed in plain browns, something like a Quaker. He wasn’t tall, nor anything of a giant as some represent and he wasn’t at all fierce or crazy looking. He was medium in height and he was quiet and agreeable to talk with. He was a gentleman and a Christian.[6]

Thomas became an avid supporter of abolition and is said to have been an agent on the Underground Railroad.[7] Later, he described those days to historian Clifton Johnson:

There were quite a good many colored people in Springfield, and most of them had been slaves who’d taken French leave of their masters. I’ve been a slave myself. That is, there were those said they had a claim on me. I never acknowledged this though, and I never have bowed to but one master, Him, God. But we were in no danger here. Runaways were all the time going through to Canada, mostly stopping with us colored people. They went about openly enough usually, but once in a while there’d be a timid one, or one would fancy he’d seen his master on the street. Then they’d keep dark. But after the fugitive slave law was passed, and some men were carried back from Boston, we all got pretty well scared and a good many went off to Canada.[8]

Thomas was also considered to have been a member of the “League of Gileadites,” the group of Springfield citizens, mostly black men, who pledged to defend by any means any local African Americans threatened under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.[9] No discussion of the League of Gileadites is ever complete without mention of Thomas Thomas, although his name does not appear on the founding document.[10] Local historians have credited him as one of the leaders of the organization. Harry Andrew Wright wrote in 1947 that, “Thomas formed the Springfield Gileadites, an order among colored people to resist capture of fugitives.”[11] Since John Brown’s trust and reliance on Thomas pre-dates the Gileadites, it would seem inconceivable that Thomas would not have been involved. Seventeen members of the Gileadites did not ascribe their names to the formative document. As a highly visible leader in the Black community, it is understandable why Thomas’ may have chosen not to publicly sign.

In 1850, Thomas Thomas became the steward at the Samoset House in Holyoke.[12]  Three years later, he left the area for Springfield, Illinois, where he worked at the American House, directly across from the office of an attorney named Abraham Lincoln, whom he served frequently.[13] In 1855, the hotel closed and Thomas returned to Massachusetts in time to join the company of men leaving for California under the direction of Springfield resident Levi Tower.[14]  It is said that John Brown tried to recruit Thomas to go to Kansas with him, but Thomas had already booked his passage to Eldorado. After three years in California and a few more in Illinois, he returned to Springfield, Mass. in 1862, settling permanently.[15]

Image of the Main Street block of the site of Thomas Thomas’ original saloon & restaurant. (Courtesy of the Wood Museum of Springfield History.)

He opened a restaurant, first on Main Street and later on Worthington, near Main.[16]  His business was very successful and he entertained “many dignitaries, court officials, business and professional men.”[17]

Recent research has shown that Thomas Thomas was leader of a black fraternal organization in Springfield. He was among the first 29 members of the Sumner Lodge, No. 12, of Prince Hall Masons, circa 1869.[18]

Thomas Thomas (left) in the doorway of his Springfield restaurant. (Courtesy of the Wood Museum of Springfield History.)

Thomas was married three times; first, to a woman named Lydia, who died in Maryland, circa 1837.  Thomas married secondly a Margaret Williams of Baltimore, Md. in 1841, who gave birth to two children that died young. In 1843, Thomas married Martha H. Hall and the couple adopted a child, Hattie Belle Thomas, formerly Simmons.[19] Thomas Thomas died in Springfield on March 9, 1894, leaving a will.[20] A chair, given to the Thomas family by John Brown, is on display at the Wood Museum of Springfield History in Springfield, Mass.

 

Cliff McCarthy, Archivist at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History and at the Stone House Museum in Belchertown, is also Vice-President of the Pioneer Valley History Network.

————————————–

[1] Death Record for Thomas Thomas, Springfield Vital Records, 1894, available online at AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA), accessed September 2021.

[2] “Death of Thomas Thomas,” Springfield Republican, 10 March 1894.

[3]  “Thomas Thomas’s Retirement,” Springfield Republican, 8 January 1893.

[4] “Death of Thomas Thomas,” Springfield Republican, 10 March 1894.

[5] “Thomas Thomas’s Retirement,” Springfield Republican, 8 January 1893.

[6] Johnson, Clifton, Hampden County, 1636-1936, Vol. 1 (New York: American Historical Society, 1936).

[7] “’Underground Railroad’ Had Station in Springfield,” Springfield Sunday Republican, 15 February 1970, p. 19.

[8] Johnson, Clifton, Hampden County, 1636-1936, Vol. 1 (New York: American Historical Society, 1936).

[9] McCarthy, Clifford, “Springfield Gileadites, The” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 50 (1-2),  Summer 2022 (forthcoming).)

[10] Sanborn, Franklin B., Life and Letters of John Brown (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891).

[11] Wright, Harry Andrew, The Story of Western Massachusetts, Vol. 1 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1949).

[12] “Death of Thomas Thomas,” Springfield Republican, 10 March 1894. See also 1850 U.S. Census for Thomas Thomas, Holyoke, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, in which he is listed as a hotel waiter.

[13] “Thomas Thomas’s Retirement,” Springfield Republican, 8 January 1893.

[14] “Thomas Thomas’s Retirement,” Springfield Republican, 8 January 1893. See also 1855 Massachusetts Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, in which his occupation is given as a “cook.”

[15] 1865 Massachusetts Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, in which his occupation is given as “saloon keeper”.

[16] 1870 U.S. Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, in which his occupation is given as “saloon keeper”.

[17] “Death of Thomas Thomas,” Springfield Republican, 10 March 1894. See also 1880 U.S. Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, in which his occupation is given as “restauranter”.

[18] “Massachusetts Negro Freemasonry” webpage online at: http://masonicgenealogy.com/MediaWiki/index.php?title=MassachusettsNegroFreemasonry, accessed 16 September 2021.

[19] Carvalho, III, Joseph, Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1865, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 2011.

[20] Will of Thomas Thomas, Massachusetts Probate Court (Hampden County), dated 12 September 1893, #19440.

 

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