Jefferson Allison Thomas (1942–2010)
Jefferson Allison Thomas made history as a member of the Little Rock Nine, the nine African-American students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The world watched as they braved constant intimidation and threats from those who opposed desegregation of the formerly all-white high school.
Jefferson Thomas was born the youngest of seven children on September 19, 1942, in Little Rock to Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Thomas. Thomas was a track athlete at all-black Horace Mann High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) when he chose to volunteer to integrate all-white Central High School for the 1957–58 school year as a sophomore. The Nine were harassed daily by some white students, and Thomas’s quiet demeanor made him a target for bullies at the school. However, he managed to finish the school year in spite of this torment. Thomas, along with all other Little Rock high school students, was prevented from attending school the next year after Governor Orval Faubus and the voters of Little Rock closed that city’s public high schools, but he returned to Central the following year and graduated in 1960.
After graduation, he attended what is now California State University in Los Angeles, where he received a degree in business administration. In 1964, Thomas narrated the documentary Nine from Little Rock, which won an Academy Award. After serving in the Army in the Vietnam War, he worked for Mobil Oil and eventually became an accountant for the United States Department of Defense.
Thomas was awarded the prestigious Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1958. In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented the nation’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the members of the Little Rock Nine.
Thomas died on September 5, 2010, in Columbus, Ohio. He was survived by his wife, Mary, and a son from his first marriage.
For additional information:
Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.
Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School. New York: Washington Square Books, 1994.
Bernstein, Adam. “Jefferson Thomas, 67, Member of Little Rock Nine, Dies.” Washington Post. September 7, 2010. Online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/06/AR2010090603672.html (accessed November 10, 2020).
Jacoway, Elizabeth, and C. Fred Williams, eds. Understanding the Little Rock Crisis: An Exercise in Remembrance and Reconciliation. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center. Little Rock, Arkansas. http://www.nps.gov/chsc/ (accessed November 10, 2020).
Roy, Beth. Bitters in the Honey: Tales of Hope and Disappointment across Divides of Race and Time. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
National Park Service
Central High School National Historic Site
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I have Jefferson Thomas’s library card from his high school library in Little Rock. My father, Bernard Lien, was a friend of his from Madison, Wisconsin. My father did an exchange program with white students and black students in his area in the 1960s and marched with Thomas during the Madison marches. Thomas gave him his library card as a token of friendship.