An Oral History

With

Eddie Thomas Sr.













Interviewer: Donald Williams













Tougaloo College Archives























This interview was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation Project.

Funding for this project was provided in part by the Mississippi

Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and

the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.



1999

Biography



Eddie Thomas Sr., is a barber and resident of 2217 Letitia Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi 29180. Mr. Thomas was born in Sharkey County at Nitta Yuma, Mississippi, on August 8, 1926, and moved to Vicksburg in 1946. He was educated in the public school system in Vicksburg. He worked for Mr. E.C. Clay in the Palace Barber Shop from 1946 until 1963, when Mr. Clay passed away and left the shop to Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas has operated under the same name, the Palace Barber Shop, ever since, first at 1615 Washington Street, then 1211 Washington Street, then 1208 Washington Street, and now the new location of 614 Clay Street, all in Vicksburg, Mississippi.



Community activities in which Mr. Thomas is involved include co-chairman of the Warren County Democratic Executive Committee, member of the Chamber of Commerce since 1972, member of the Board of the United Way, member of the NAACP for fifty-three years, member of the D.W. Simmons Brotherhood Relief Club, member of St Mary's Episcopal Church. Among Mr. Thomas' awards are Humanitarian Americana, 1968 to 1972, from the Concerned Citizens of Vicksburg, Commendation for Achievement by the Citizens for Greater Vicksburg, Meritorious Achievement Award for Business and Community Service by the Wiseman Civic Club, Certificate of Achievement from the Fidelity Lodge 507 and Eureka Temple 733, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers' Certificate of Achievement to name a few.



Mr. Thomas is married to Louise Jones Thomas. They have two children, Eddie Thomas Jr., who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and Vallery Louise Thomas Lee, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama. They also have four grandchildren. His parents are Mr. Frank Thomas and Mrs. Everlee Thomas.

Table of Contents



Palace Barber Shop 1

Drs. Ollye and Aaron Shirley 2

Childhood 3

Moving to Vicksburg 4

Voter registration 5

Poll tax 6

Literacy test 7

Voter's League/Warren County Improvement League 9

NAACP in the early fifties 9

Vicksburg Citizens' Appeal 10

Thomas integrates seating at Courthouse 12

Thomas integrates seating on bus 13

Boycott 14

Integration of Vicksburg schools 14

Key leaders in Vicksburg 15

Sovereignty Commission files 17

Bessie Brown and the bombing of Vicksburg's COFO office 17

COFO house at 1720 Military 17

Thirty-year reunion of Freedom Summer 18

AN ORAL HISTORY



with



EDDIE THOMAS SR.



This is an interview for the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with Eddie Thomas Sr. and is taking place on June 28, 1999. The interviewer is Don Williams.



Williams: Today is June 28, and I'm in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and I'm going to talk with Mr. Eddie Thomas about the Vicksburg civil rights movement. Now, Mr. Thomas you were telling me you had been in this location for six years. Am I correct?



Thomas: Yeah. Right.



Williams: Where were you located prior?



Thomas: Before I moved down here, I was at 1215 Washington Street.



(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)



Williams: So, prior to here, you were located where?



Thomas: The name of this has always been the Palace Barber Shop. That's the name of the shop. But in my first beginning, I was at 1615 Washington, then I stayed there from forty-six to seventy-seven, and I moved. Relocated to 1215 Washington Street, and in ninety-three, I moved to 614 Clay Street, where I am located now. I've been here ever since March. Six years in March.



Williams: So, have you ever cut any celebrity's hair over the years?



Thomas: Well, I would say so, yeah. (Laughter.) I've cut quite a few celebrities that have come to me.



Williams: Can you name a few?



Thomas: I would name one that was connected with us. I used to cut his hair about every time he would come through, and that was Charles Evers. Aaron Henry. And then next door here where this Harris Parking Garage is at now, they have leased it from the city. They built them for city parking, but now that the casino has come here, they have leased them out to the casino, but where that garage right there is, was the black night club owner. Tom Wince[?] owned it. The Blue Room. Have you ever heard of the Blue Room night club?



Williams: Yes.



Thomas: Years ago, and I cut, like, Fats Domino and Bobby Bluebland[?] and B.B. King, and all them fellows would come here and they would play right there, but I was up on Washington Street, but I used to sell tickets for the shows when they would be coming to town. They had somebody coming just about every week. Just like in the forties, and fifties, and early sixties, till they went out. The place went out of business. That urban renewal had taken over a lot of the downtown area where there was a lot of dilapidated houses down on Mulberry[?] Street, the next street down. And they relocated all those people and redid the downtown area and had a lot of people that moved, you know, so, he moved to another location. The Blue Room did. They called it the Barrel Club up on Walnut Street, but that was in the sixties, too, right after the sixty-three, sixty-four, sixty-five civil rights movement, when we had the big voter registration things going on. When Dr. King came to town and all the students from other states and universities and things came down during the summer and fall and what have you. During their break, they'd always come. When they first started coming, they called them freedom riders, you know. When they started sitting in, had sit-ins on the buses, the bus stations, and Woolworth's. Different places that had restaurants, like Woolworth's and Walgreen's had restaurants in their stores, you know. And they would come and sit in and get arrested and what have you.



Williams: Can I just stop you for one moment, and I want to go back and get a little bit about your background.



(A brief segment of the interview regarding scheduling has not been transcribed.)



Williams: Where were you born?



Thomas: I was born in Sharkey County.



Williams: And when were you born?



Thomas: Eight, eight, twenty-six. August 8, 1926.



Williams: You know, I asked Dr. Ollye Shirley when she was born, and she wouldn't tell me. She said, "I'm not going to tell you." And I've got a big question mark on her name.



Thomas: You said you talked to Ollye Shirley. I thought you said you talked to Dr. Shirley.



Williams: Well, you know she's got a Ph.D.



Thomas: Yeah, she's a doctor, too.



Williams: She's got a Ph.D. in education and he's a physician.



Thomas: Yes.



Williams: But she wouldn't tell me when she was born.



Thomas: But I've worked with both of them. We used to meet at their house when they stayed here out on Main Street. He had his office; it was up on Washington Street here, too.



Williams: Yes, I want to ask you a little bit about them as well, and I had gotten a copy of the old, well, maybe I didn't bring it with me, but the old Vicksburg Citizens' Appeal. Do you remember that?



Thomas: Oh, yes.



Williams: OK. Now, Sharkey County, twenty-six. Tell me a little bit about your family background. How many brothers and sisters did you have? What did your daddy do?



Thomas: Well, we were farmers. We lived on a farm. Raised mostly cotton and corn and soybeans and oats, whatever they raised on the farm at that time.



Williams: Did you own it or were you sharecroppers?



Thomas: We were sharecropping. Well, actually we were renting. We didn't share. We rented the acreage that my daddy was on, and I worked for my daddy. That's the only job I ever had. Then sometimes if we would catch up with our crop, we would go and work for the white man or somebody else's place, or something. We would help our neighbors. If we got our crop up before the neighbors did, we'd help them and vice versa. Then we would go and make a few days by the day. I was a kid. I wasn't getting nothing but they would pay us fifty cents a day chopping cotton. That's what we got until you got big enough or old enough to, what they called "carry your own row." Then you got paid what the men got. At first you got paid what the women got. Well, then at that time the women were getting seventy-five cents a day, when they got that raise, and the men were getting a dollar a day. And we would work. The women would work from 6:00 in the morning till 11:00; take two hours for lunch. Come back at 1:00 and work till 6:00 in the evening. But the men would work from sunup to sundown. Have an hour off from noon till 1:00. And that's the way I grew up on the farm. I plowed the mule. I chopped cotton. I picked cotton, and I drove tractors for awhile. I drove Farmall tractors and John Deere tractors back in those days, but the last thing I did before I left the farm which was on November 1, 1946, I hitched the mules up to the wagon, went down to the corn field and pulled the last load of corn by myself because my other brothers and family were doing something else.



And back to siblings and all, there were five of us: one girl and four boys and then my mother and daddy raised two more boys, which were my daddy's sister's children. They raised two more boys. So that made it be seven of us kids there at the house. And I must have been about fifth. The fifth one because I had one cousin and one brother who were younger than I was. So I was the fifth one. Now I have, living now, I have one brother and one sister living. The two cousins have passed and my oldest brother and my youngest brother have passed. So I have one brother in Denver, Colorado, and my sister still lives up there in Rolling Fork. They're still in Sharkey County. But we lived up above Rolling Fork. When I left there, I came from Nitta Yuma. But later years, they moved down this side of Rolling Fork, south of Rolling Fork at a place called Egremount. That's where my parents and brother and my mother died at. They died at Egremount, Mississippi. But now, I have one sister still up there. She lives in Rolling Fork, and all of them have lots of kids.



Williams: OK. In 1946, when did you come to Vicksburg?



Thomas: That particular day. I pulled that load of corn. Carried the mules to the barn. Had taken them out and put them in the lot. Left the corn on the wagon. Went in the house, had taken a bath and walked out to the highway, because we were off the highway in the country and caught the Greyhound bus and came to Vicksburg that first day of November in 1946.



Williams: OK. What made you come to Vicksburg?



Thomas: Well, my brother that is living now in Denver, Colorado, he was living in Vicksburg. And the fellow on the plantation that was kind of like a little boss like, was running a little place in his house where you have people come and drink and play music and dance and play cards and what have you, you know. And he was bootlegging. He'd come to Vicksburg to get his booze, and I rode with him a couple of times. I visited my brother; had come and stayed with my brother overnight a couple of times in Vicksburg. And this one time we were in Vicksburg, I happened to be walking down the street and stopped in a couple of barbershops and asked them, did they need anybody. Because that's what I did on the side, on the farm, was cut hair. My older brothers cut hair. They never did do it for a living like I'm doing as a barber, but they had plenty tools, clipping tools. My daddy and my two older brothers, they cut family's hair, and neighbor's hair, and children's hair in the neighborhood, you know. And, I picked it up, too. And I was pretty good at it. I would do that on weekends, like, we would get through working on the farm on Saturday, I would go out to the store and the man let me cut hair on the store porch. And I would cut people's hair and give them a shave. I used a straight-razor and got pretty good at it.



So, when I come to Vicksburg, there was a man there called Mr. E.C. Clay, had a barbershop. It was named Palace Barbershop; I've still got the name. And I asked him, did he need somebody, and he told me, "Yes." And I told him what I was doing and we were about to wind up the crop, and if he would let me, I would come to town and work during the winter until spring and go back to the farm. And he told me to come on down, and he would try me out. So [I] had come down, and I went to Jackson. Had Farish Street Barber School over in Jackson at the time. I went there and had taken a test. I didn't go to school. I went and had taken the test. Had taken the written test and the barber's test and got a temporary license and worked with him and I never did go back to the farm. Because that was the kind of understanding that my parents had. Because I was twenty years old then, but anyway, I never did go back, and I've been cutting ever since. After I got my license, and I've been doing it ever since. That will be fifty-three years this year.



Williams: Fantastic. Where did you go to school?



Thomas: I went to school in Nitta Yuma and then in Rolling Fork High School. See they didn't have no high school where I was, you know, to go to high school there. That's where I went to high school.



Williams: When did you graduate from high school? Do you remember what year?



Thomas: It was the year before that. It must have been forty-five. Forty-four or forty-five. I would have to look at it.



Williams: No problem. OK. Have you ever lived any place else other than Vicksburg over the years?



Thomas: No. No other place.



Williams: OK. That's easy. Let me go fast forward, now, up to, let's say, the fifties. Or, let's start back when you hit Vicksburg. Well, let's start when--. When did you first realize that there might be some difference in the races? Race relations: black versus white or white over black?



Thomas: Well, what really got me involved was the man I worked for. He was very instrumental in getting people registered to vote.



Williams: E.C. Clay.



Thomas: E.C. Clay. And some more people here that were along his age, and all, were Mr. Jim Houston[?], and a preacher here was named Reverend--he's got some sons and daughters who live here now--Reverend J.R. Bingham[?] and several more people. Then we had the local branch of the NAACP here and they had what they called the Voter's League here in Warren County. And Mr. Clay was instrumental in--. That's the first thing he asked me: how old I was and was I registered to vote. You know. So I got registered to vote that same--.



Williams: Just keep talking. I just--.



Thomas: That same year, well, that was in November. At that time, you only registered at a certain time of the year, and then you had to pay your poll tax. Pay a $2 poll tax. And you would do that through January till the first of February, and then after the deadline, you had a deadline to pay it. So you had to wait another year before you could pay again. Then you would have to have two years poll tax receipts before you could vote at that time.



Williams: Was that a lot of money or just, you know--. I mean the two bucks.



Thomas: Was it what?



Williams: Was it a lot of money, then?



Thomas: Well, it wasn't a lot of money for a person that had it, but I guess it was something like maybe, to a person working and most women and a lot of men, there weren't a lot of jobs available at that time, back in those days, that you would be lucky if you had the $2. You know. And then some people that had little jobs like the teachers and other people that worked domestic work, you know, in people's houses and all of the places of business had some blacks working, maybe one or two, as maids or janitors or something in all of the stores downtown. We had a lot of warehouses here. P.P. Williams [Wholesale Groceries] and the Merchant Company and Swift [Meat] Packing and all of them had trucks running out and distributing groceries. We had the Coca-Cola plant, bakery shop. Well, they had a lot of blacks working. We didn't have like a Cross-Heinz[?] or Cooper Lighting[?] or any of those factories, Westinghouse. The only thing what a lot of blacks was working was Anderson Tully, is the big saw mill here. It was the biggest employer for blacks until LeTourneau Company opened up here in the early fifties. And we had a garment factory open up in the fifties. Now those people, they were working, but they were really reluctant to show their hand that they were members of the NAACP, or go to the courthouse to get registered to vote. Now, this Reverend J.R. Bingham I was talking about, and another minister named Reverend Reed[?], during time for you to pay your property taxes, like the first of the year in January, you pay your property taxes, he would stand at the courthouse and tell people when they would go in to pay their property taxes, be sure you pay your poll tax. That's all he would do. He would stand out there and tell them and then he would marry people, blacks. They would give him a room upstairs in the courthouse where if you go there and get your marriage license, he would marry you right there. But he always was standing there, and he would tell you to pay your poll tax when you would pay your property tax.



And back to Mr. Clay, we set up places like barbershops, funeral homes and grocery stores in the black neighborhoods and let us put out leaflets and signs where the people could come there and pay their poll taxes. We would give them a receipt for their money and we would take all that money, and I would usually be the one to go to the courthouse and carry it. We had a sheriff would take it. We would carry him a whole long list of people's names and poll taxes. They didn't have no voter registration form to fill out. You would just pay your poll tax and when you go back, you would sign your name on the book. They'd get your name and age and you signed the book. Something like similar to the way they do now. If you can't read and write, you still can register to vote, but that's the way it was then until 1955, when they passed this literacy test where you had to recite a section of the Mississippi Constitution and then interpret it to suit the registrar before they would allow you to register you to vote. That came in 1955. And then they did away with it in 1965 or sixty-six whenever they came through with the Voter's Rights Act. But that was the way that was. But we would collect, every weekend or every so often, we would go to Dillon's[?] Funeral Homes, Robin's[?] Funeral Home, and Jefferson's Funeral Home. We had three of them here at that time. And all the barber shops, well not all the barber shops, but two or three of them that we had designated for people to go in and if they had two or three or four or whatever they had, we would collect them, and I would take them to the courthouse and leave them with the sheriff. Paid taxes in the sheriff's office then. You know, they have separated them now. You know you've got the sheriff's office is separated from the tax collector's office, but anyway, we would leave them with the sheriff and we would go back, he would have them all in envelopes. Everybody's receipts with the name on it and all. We would go back and pick them up in the next couple of days. And we did that. And that's how we were getting so many on the books here in Warren County.



Now a lot of counties up in--. That was in the late forties and early fifties, on up through sixty, up until when they brought the federal registrars in here in sixty-five and sixty-six, and when they did away with the poll tax, and they set up the federal registrars in the basement of the post office here, and you could go there. Well, they were still paying poll tax when the federal registrars came, but when they did away with it, everybody that had paid that year or the year before, when they made it retroactive, and a lot of them got their refund back for that $2 they had paid with the federal government. You had to pay with that federal registrar, pay your $2 poll tax, and, but you didn't have to go to but one place to register. Like I live in the city limits, I would go to the courthouse and register to vote there and then have to come back to city hall and register to vote there to be able to vote in the city election and all the elections, you know. People who live out in the county, they can't vote in the city limits no way, so they only registered one place. So that's the way they did.



And when the civil rights workers came in sixty-three and sixty-four and started going from door-to-door, and they started sending clothes down and groceries down, and people that wasn't able, and they had transportation, and we would take them to the courthouse, and if they had children they would give them clothes and let them come get clothes and let them come get groceries and all and load them up and, them that were old enough, carry them to the courthouse and get them registered. And, Lord, the Klux would get mad. And we had got books. We set up schools. We went over those. We were lucky to get--. There were sixth-grade textbooks that had this constitution in it that they were going by, here in Warren County. And some of the teachers or principals got us a good number of those books, and we were running off some leaflets of certain sections that they were always referring to or give you. They would give you a section and let you go fill it out. You'd fill your paper out and everything, and you would carry it back to them, like I said. If it didn't suit him, he'd turn you down. He or she, whoever was waiting on you. They'd turn you down; tell you you didn't pass.



Williams: So, it wasn't multiple choice and you would check? I mean, how was the test structured? Did the clerk interpret what you were saying as to be the answer or it would be a written test?



Thomas: It would mostly be a written test. It wasn't an oral test, at all. It was a written test. You filled the form out and then you turned it in to him or her and then they would tell you, "Well, you ain't got this right." It wasn't A, B, or C. It wasn't multiple choice like that or nothing like that. It was just whatever that section said, you put what you thought it meant.



Williams: Yes. Now, what church did you attend when you first came? What's your home church? I guess that's what I'm asking you. During the fifties and sixties and seventies?



Thomas: Well, I joined the church, and I'm still a member, now. St. Mary's Episcopal Church here. One of the instructors out at Jackson State, now, he's our pastor now.



Williams: Reverend Middleton?



Thomas: Reverend Middleton.



Williams: Yes. Do you remember his father?



Thomas: Yes, I remember his father. Well, his grandfather was there, too. But I didn't remember him. He was before my time, but I joined there in the mid-fifties. When I came here I used to attend Bethel A.M.E. Church. I used to attend there, but I never did join there. I was raised up in the Baptist. I was baptized as a Baptist. My parents and the rest of my family are Baptists. So was my wife. She was a Baptist, too. Her daddy was a Baptist minister, but she had joined this church, St. Mary's, several years before I did, and after we got married, next February we will be married fifty years. So, and my son is forty years old now, and I was a member of the church before he was born, so I've been there ever since. I've been on [the Vestry Board for some time now.]



Williams: Now, let me ask you this: what organizations do you think were important during the voter registration and the beginning of the civil rights movement here in Vicksburg? Who do you think were--? You mentioned the NAACP.



Thomas: Well, like I said, they had the one called, the Voter's League, they called it at one time. Then they changed the name in later years to the Warren County Improvement League, and Mr. Frank Summers[?] was the leader [president] there. We had a principal of the high school that got killed. Well, they say he killed himself.



Williams: Do you remember his name?



Thomas: Professor Sanders[?] I don't remember what his first name was, but anyway, his name was Professor Sanders, and he was the principal of Bowman[?] High School, and he, something happened, anyway, one Saturday morning, they say he killed his wife and then killed himself. And then there was this Sturgis[?] had taken over behind him for principal of the school, but Professor Sanders, he's the one that was instrumental in starting this Voter's League. Mrs. M.A. Phelps[?] and Mr. Theodore Phelps[?] and all them.



Williams: About what year was that?



Thomas: That was in, I don't know exactly what year he got killed, but like I say, it was in the early fifties, (inaudible).



Williams: Did you guys work with other counties or black folks in surrounding counties?



Thomas: Yes, through the NAACP, you know we had the meetings in Jackson all the time at the Masonic Temple after they got it built. We used to meet at that Methodist Church there in Jackson. We used to have a lot of meetings there. Farish Street Pratt[?] Memorial Methodist Church, I believe, was the name of it. We had a lot of meetings at that church and we were just meeting around.



Williams: Yes. Well, who was creating the NAACP at that time?



Thomas: In the early years when I first came here, we had a doctor here by the name of Dr. Penson[?]. He got killed in an automobile accident. He was the president at that time. And from then on, they had (inaudible) had Mr. Alphonso Brown, Levy Brown, Mr. Charlie Still[?], John Ferguson, Robert Walker, Gloria Hebron. I think that's the only woman president we had, that was Gloria, and she served two terms and there was a fellow named Tom Money[?]. Colonel Tom Money, he retired out of the Air Force and came home. He was working at Waterways Experiment Station. I think he did two terms at different times and on down to a Thomas fellow that went out about a year ago, now. He was named Willie Thomas. And then Reverend Metcalf[?] was made president. He died before. He was vice president and he had taken over when Willie Thomas had to go out of town for some reason, he was working at the Waterways Experiment Station, and Reverend Metcalf died before he was installed. And the president now is named Charles Wright[?]. He was installed the first of this year. Charles Wright.



Williams: Let me ask you this. The Vicksburg Citizens' Appeal. Now, I think I saw that you were the president of the paper.



Thomas: Yes.



Williams: Now, can you tell me, how did you start the paper? And how was it organized initially?



Thomas: Well, that was actually those workers that came down. They are the ones that started the paper with Mrs., you've got her name here, Mrs. Dilla E. Irwin. I see her name here. You've got Ms. Dilla E. Irwin. That's where they did the work at, out at her house. They worked on the paper there with Dr. Shirley's wife, Ollye. She and David Riley[?], was one. He was kind of crippled here. The folks would get information and everything and write up the paper and we would OK it. He would drive it to New Orleans and get it printed and bring it back and help distribute it. And they would have different ones would go out and get the ads, you know, and put them on the stands.



Williams: Now when you say they drove to New Orleans--?



Thomas: Well, before they quit printing it, they started printing it for them here at the Evening Post, I think, but before then, they would have to drive all the way to New Orleans to get it printed. And bring it back here and distribute it in Vicksburg.



Williams: I see you've got these various ads from different companies. I think I made a list of all the ones at the bottom that were--. Now, did any of the businesses suffer any kind of repercussions because of the ads in the paper, in the Vicksburg Citizens' Appeal?



Thomas: I don't think so. I never heard of any because most of the time if we put them on the stand at the whites' stores and things, and they would, you know, let them sell them there. A lot of times we just gave them away, but if we sold any, we put them on the stand at the supermarkets and then they would, people would come there and buy them, you know, and like I said, they would take out an ad. Some of the--.



Williams: Now, when you say supermarket, what kinds of supermarkets were they? Were they integrated supermarkets where everybody would go in there and buy their groceries or was it segregated or what?



Thomas: Yes. Most supermarkets at that time were white. Like Help Yourself, Sunflower. I don't think we had a Kroger here then. We had an A & P Store. Two of them at that time. We had a Piggly Wiggly and we had the Jitney Jungles. We had about six or seven Jitney Jungles here at that time.



Williams: OK. When you went into the grocery store, you could go in, but it was integrated or segregated?



Thomas: Oh, everything was integrated unless they had a lunch counter in there.



Williams: So, if you had to get in line to pay for your groceries, would they have a white line, a black line?



Thomas: No, no. Everybody got in the same line. That always was like that.



Williams: So whenever you were coughing up your bread, it was integrated. I mean, you know, like the cash register. When you had to go to the cash register, there was no problem.



Thomas: No problem at all. You stood in line, whether it was white or black. Well, it started with the Help Yourself and the Piggly Wiggly where you go, because most of the stores then were small neighborhood stores, then, and you'd ask for what you want and they would get it for you, you know? But then after they had called it Help Yourself, you got your buggies and you would push your buggy, put in there what you want, come check out, just like you do now. There was no problem here in Vicksburg as far as getting what you wanted. Now, all the restaurants that were white, all the Greek stands, we had about four of them here. The Greeks had their restaurant, but they had a partition and a counter on this side and a counter on that side. The blacks go in this door, and the whites go in that door. White and black. No, white and colored. That's the way it was. White and colored. You'd go in one side, and the whites would go in the other side. You sat down and were served from the steam table in the center, with all the food. You got the same food he got, but just was sitting separated and eating separated. That was the only difference in it. The same people cooked it. The same people waited on you. Whatever. They had one cashier, the same person would take your money. Like if they had waiters on this side and waiters on that side, and they all bring it to one cashier, and he would take your money.



(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)



Williams: Well, how did they get you involved in this paper? That's what I want to know. Who brought it to you?



Thomas: Well like I said, mostly they just used my name. And Ms. Irwin, she was a retired school teacher. She was semi-retired. She came from Grambling here and she just worked part-time here, but I was involved in just about everything. Everything that came up, if you needed something done, somebody to go somewhere, somebody to sit in, to integrate something, [I was the man.]



Williams: Tell me about some of the things that you did.



Thomas: I was one of the ones to do it, and you wouldn't believe this--



Williams: Yes, I would. Tell me.



Thomas: --that I never got arrested. Now, my wife went to jail twice. She got arrested twice, but I did everything to be done, and never got arrested. Like when we had to go get on the bus, come in the front door. These were city buses. Come in the front door, put your money in the thing just like everybody else did, but you had to go where they had the sign up that said, "Colored." You had to go behind the sign. That was here in the city, just like they had on the Greyhound and the Trailways. They had the same thing. Just like Ms. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat down there, but the people knew what they were doing. You know, it was just a tradition. It was a way of life, and when we got ready, said we were going to integrate the buses, you know, here in town. So, when I caught the bus, and I was at the courthouse and we were coming, we were going to have, Dr. Shirley and Mr. Summers and I were going to have lunch at one of the restaurants up here, what was called Snack A Minute. It was run by the fellow that runs the Shop A Minute, which was a convenience store, what they call Seven Eleven, or whatever you want to call them. But Crawford Mims[?] owned the stores, they called them Shop A Minute. And right next to it he built a restaurant there called the Snack A Minute and we were going to have lunch there together that day, and I was at the courthouse where we had something going on there, and I went.



They were having a white fellow's trial that had shot a black boy up on Eagle Lake. They were deer hunting and had him out there to open the gate and close it as they came through. And for some reason, they were going to play with him with the gun, or something. Make him dance or something, whatever. And one of the deer hunters, white fellows, shot the boy, in the leg or something. And they were having his trial for that. I went to the courthouse that morning and they had a balcony for the black, for colored folks to sit upstairs in the balcony. Downstairs all the white folks sat. So I went in the courthouse that day and sat at the end of the bench downstairs. And I could see when the judge came out, he talked to the bailiff, and when he got through talking, he came straight to me and told me, he said--he knows my name. Everybody knows me. Said, "Eddie," said, "the judge said you have to go upstairs. Go up in the balcony."



I said, "Why? Are these seats reserved for somebody?"



He said, "I don't know. That's what he told me. You have to go upstairs."



So I sat there a few minutes. And I got out. I came on downstairs and went into the sheriff's office, you know. A fellow named Luckett was the sheriff at that time. I said, "Hey, Luckett." I said, "Who's in charge of the court room down there?"

He said, "Oh, I am. I am."



I said, "Well, the judge told me I had to go upstairs. I couldn't sit down there. He told me I had to go upstairs."



He said, "Oh, when court's in session, he's in charge." That's what Luckett told me.



Williams: And Luckett was a white fellow, right?



Thomas: He was the sheriff and we had no black elected officials back in them days. No black elected officials in Mississippi nowhere, but Mound Bayou, and that was an all-black town at that time. But, we didn't even have no [black] policemen on the force. No elected officials. No policemen. No sheriffs. No deputy sheriffs. No constables, and nobody else. Everything was white. So, I came on out and I came downstairs. We had moved our office out on Military Street, because they had bombed the COFO office out here on Hossley and Mission, out there, and I called out there and told them what had happened. So, in the meantime, the telephone was out on the street, and when the bus came along, it stopped right along where I was.



So I caught the bus. And all the blacks were sitting in the back and the whites were sitting in the front, so a vacant seat was right behind the driver. All this was the same day. Now, I sat right behind the driver and rode on downtown to right here on this corner, [Clay Street] right up here, and got off right there in front of the First National Bank. Got off the bus and then I walked on out. The driver never said a word to me. He didn't say nothing to me. I got off, came out through the front door, because you could go in the front but you had to go out on the back door. So I came out through the front door like all the white folks did. Nobody said a word to me. I came on up here to this Snack A Minute where I met Mr. Summers and Dr. Shirley up there, and we ate lunch together. They served us and then nobody said anything. The waitress had a conversation with us, you know, and all. Talked. Real friendly. So, and different things like that that I did.



Walked the picket line. This is further on up the line. It wasn't during the civil rights movement. This was during the boycott that we had here in seventy-two. I carried a picket sign, walked the picket line; I hauled people. I didn't own my own car then, but I was driving somebody else's car. They'd take my tag number. I could see them doing that, the policemen, but I never was arrested. That Saturday coming up to Mother's Day, they arrested a whole lot of them downtown, then that morning, a lot more of them went down there and protested against them, and they arrested them on Mother's Day. They got arrested.



Williams: What was the first protest about? I mean the first group that got arrested? What were they protesting and where downtown?



Thomas: Well, the boycott started because a white fellow had molested a black girl. And the judge had let him off. Well, he said nothing but just a warning, or something. And that's what started it. The judge didn't give him any time or any fine or anything, you know. After he was brought before the judge, was arrested and put in jail, and then brought to court, then the judge didn't do nothing. That was Judge Oscar LaBarre[?]. So that's what the protest started about. Then after that, then we wrote up some grievances with the merchants and that's why we boycotted the merchants, about they were high in prices and different things, you know. Wasn't nobody in the stores, no clerks, nobody but porters and janitors and maids, you know. So that's when the big thing started.



Williams: What year was that?



Thomas: That was in seventy-two. That started March 22, 1972, and it went on for about a year. And we almost shut the whole town down during that. That was in seventy-two, because all the other, the integration and things had been cleared out then, you know. But, public accommodations, like the buses, and the hotels and restaurants and all of that was clear.



(There is a brief interruption in the tape.)



Williams: Now, you were saying that the schools were integrated, that Vicksburg didn't have the kind of conflict as other school systems. Can you tell me a little about how Vicksburg's school systems were integrated? What happened?



Thomas: After the school integrations came down from the attorney general's office out of Washington, D.C., they left some leeway in there where the state would have the final say or the local district would have the final say, so like I say, we had here, before they drew the lines, where it was north and south, to integrate you had a freedom of choice. You had a choice to go to whatever school that suits you. You didn't have to go to--. Blacks didn't have to go to a black school, and whites didn't have to go to an all-white school. You had a choice to go to whatever school you wanted to in that grade level, you know. Like you had so many elementary schools that predominantly was all-white or all-black, you had a choice to go to whatever one you wanted to send your children to. You had a choice of doing that.



(End of tape one, side one. Interview continues on tape one, side two.)



Williams: OK. So, you also stated earlier that you thought that Vicksburg, when integration came about, that there was kind of not too many problems associated with integration. Why do you think that occurred like that, and what happened? What happened and why do you think it happened?



Thomas: I think the reason that happened was because Vicksburg kind of had a head start on most of the counties in Mississippi because they already had voter registration going on, and had people voting. Had a good number of people that were registered to vote, and politicians would kind of look up to those people that were registered to vote. They were seeking their vote, where years back, on a statewide ballot, candidates that were running for governor, lieutenant governor, back in those times they always said that the one that could holler, "Nigger" the loudest was the one got elected. And they knew that. There were so many counties like Claiborne, Jefferson, and many more counties that didn't have any registered black voters at that time, before the sixties. They didn't have any black registered voters. And Vicksburg always has had some, and like I said, we started the drives back in the late forties and early fifties. Even before the Voter's Rights Act was passed. When it did come, we didn't have any problems because we had just about got over those hurdles, I think, and we had organizations. I think Warren County had the first NAACP chapter in Mississippi. Vicksburg did. Your leaders that were in office respected the leaders that were in the organization. They respected the organization. That's true now. And that's why we are having the problems we are having now because our people now are the ones getting away from organization, but the white man knows if you've got organization, you've got strength. And our people now, just jump up, if they want to run for office, they run without seeking the help of the organization. So you don't know.



They just say, "Well, this office is going to be vacant, and I'm going to run." Don't care whether there are two blacks, or five blacks, or whatever running, you're just going to get in the race and run, black against black. And they didn't do that back then. They would seek out who was the best man. We'd have a vote on it. We'd have a meeting on it and see who we think would be best qualified or the ones to get the best turnout with the same way we did when we were voting for the white candidates. We'd have meetings about it and discuss it and get some background information on him. Do some research on him through other people. See what he did, if he had been in office before. See what he did and what he didn't do, and if he hadn't done anything we would just try to replace him. They knew that. When blacks started running. You know you got ninety-five percent of the black vote, but when you got two blacks running, or three blacks running, one white can get in there and take the whole thing. But organizations, they're not recognizing organizations no more.



Williams: Who were some of the key leaders during this time that would kind of bring the community together? That were kind of the dominant personalities of the time?



Thomas: Well, you had fellows here back in those days, like I said, Professor Sanders and Reverend Reed and Reverend Bingham and the doctor, his name was Dr. Penson[?]. He was the president of the NAACP back in the late forties and the early fifties. He got killed somewhere around fifty-two. I believe it was fifty-two he got killed in an automobile accident, Dr. Penson did. And Dr. Shirley came on in. When he came here, he got on board. Mr. Frank Summers, Frank Crump. People of that nature. I don't want to leave myself out, because I was right in there with them, you know. I was kind of young at the time, under them, but Mr. Phelps, Mr. Pink Taylor, Ms. Lee Willa Miller, Ms. Mildred C. Cosey. We've got one of our members now, and they ain't set a date for her funeral. Her name was Mary Carter at the time; she was Mary Flowers. You might see she--.



Unknown Male Voice: I saw it in the paper.



Thomas: She died.



Williams: Is she any kin to you?



Unknown Male Voice: No, no.



Thomas: No, this is different. She was a Carter, but her husband died and she remarried here and his name was Flowers. I didn't know him. He's not a Vicksburger. He came from somewhere else before he came to Vicksburg.



Williams: Let me kind of get back just a little bit. Now you remember when they bombed the Baptist Academy, and I think that was the COFO office and the freedom school at that particular facility.



Thomas: Right.



Williams: That was bombed October 4, 1964, and I understand that your second issue of the Vicksburg Citizens' Appeal covered that. And you were president at the time. Can you tell me what happened leading up to the bombing and how did the community respond?



Thomas: Well, it was a lot of protests against a lot of, you know--. I got some papers there somewhere that would--. But see when they opened those files over there last year on the seventeenth of March--



Williams: The Sovereignty Commission.



Thomas: The Sovereignty Commission files. They got some of that in there about what happened here, you know. It seems like the police never did arrest anybody or do anything about it. Looked like they really pushed the issue of who did it or why and all that, but at that time when it happened, like you just stated, you got that information that they were having classes out there to teach people how to go about holding elections and having precinct meetings and leading up to the convention and different things. Going through the demo--. Trying to participate in the democratic process of electing your president, and all your elected officials and they were teaching this kind of stuff and also getting people registered to vote and a lady had got burned out down sixty-one highway, and they let her move in there, in part of it, with her children, with her family.



Williams: Was that Mrs. Brown?



Thomas: Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Bessie Brown. She moved in and hadn't been in there but a little while before they bombed the place. Just lucky nobody got hurt, seriously.



Williams: Is Mrs. Brown still living?



Thomas: No, she has passed.



Williams: Are any of her kids still around?



Thomas: She left here after that and they all were living in Peoria, Illinois, and one of her sons, he left here with some of the civil rights workers and went to Illinois, stayed up there. He's still up there. She had a daughter named Sandra. She's still in Illinois, but they all left here and never did come back. She passed, though.



Williams: Right after the bombing, what did you guys first do? What was your impression and what were the first activities that took place as a result?



Thomas: We just kept doing what we were doing. We just moved locations to meeting in houses and churches and different things until we got a place out there on Military, what we called the COFO House. Then we changed it to the Freedom Democratic Party, after we got the party started in early--. We got the Freedom Democratic Party started and we started meeting out at 1720 Military. That's where it was. It was a grocery store, and it was vacant, and we rented it and we moved everything out there, until later years, then we moved everything down here on Grove Street in the Masonic Building down here on 717 Grove Street, and we continued to carry out, doing what we had been doing. Getting people registered to vote, and teaching them how to vote, and all that, and how to conduct the meetings, and all, and that's how that went. And when Dr. King came, before we went to Atlantic City, New Jersey to the Democratic Convention, he came here in August. He came in July and it was August when we went to the convention. And we didn't get the seats we wanted. Got some of the committee men and the committee woman elected, but we didn't accept that. We just came on back. And the next year we organized, in 1965 we organized the real party of the Freedom Democratic Party. But we tried to integrate. The whites, you know, tried to integrate it, but that didn't work, and they didn't want to give up the seats that we wanted.



Williams: Now, from my little research that I've done on the Warren County Voter's League and COFO--. What was the relationship between COFO, the young civil rights activists and the older, more established Voter's League folks, such as Mr. Clay, and folks who were home staters?



Thomas: Most of them were gone then when that came along. Mr. Clay and Dr. Penson and Reverend Bingham and Reverend Reed and all them, they were long gone. Mr. Clay died in sixty-three, and like I said, I think Dr. Penson got killed in the early fifties. But the older heads, they kind of went along with most of the things, but not everything. But they didn't change. We had older people, at that time, was president of the NAACP, and they, with Dr. Aaron Henry being the head of everything, you know, the head of that organization, he just fit right in with the movement and we never had no problems because we all were meeting at the Masonic Temple over there in Jackson, and we had state meetings and it all just blended in. Everybody worked together. Now in later years, we had more protests from some of the elder ones during the seventies when the boycott was. Some of them didn't quite go along with boycotting some of the stores, but it went on anyway, and we just moved some of them out of office, put somebody else in office and kept on going. Wasn't a real big deal. But that registering to vote and all, the reason that went along so smooth was like I said, because we had kind of already established Warren County. I was surprised when that came out in the paper about it. Even in Monroe, Louisiana, as big a town as that was, (inaudible) Parish in Monroe, Louisiana, they didn't have any black voters in that town, back when the Voter's Rights Act passed. They didn't have any black voters in that big a town as Monroe.



(There is a brief interruption in the tape.)



Thomas: Of course, more of them were here in Vicksburg, but those were the only four come by to see me, two men and two women.



Williams: So what was that you had here?



Thomas: They had the anniversary of the--. This must have been in ninety-five, when they were here. Four years ago, now. They were here in ninety-five. That summer they had a reunion, thirty-year reunion for the whole thing, and they were meeting at Tougaloo and Jackson State. They were up at Tougaloo and Jackson State there, and a lot of them came down that were here during the movement. They came back and visited a lot the places that they had visited when they were here thirty years prior to that and some of the people. A lot of them were passed and gone like Mr. and Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Mildred Cozy, and now Mrs. Mary Carter. Mary Flowers is her name, now, but all them were real active. Mrs. Emma Hunter, that was Reverend McBride's mother. She's gone now. Reverend McBride, that is the one who spearheaded the boycott here in seventy-two. He is living in Lake Providence, now. I heard he was setting up residence over there and was going to run for mayor over there.



Williams: In Lake Providence?



Thomas: Louisiana. That's across the river over there.



Williams: OK. Reverend McBride.



Thomas: Eddie McBride. His name is the same as mine. Eddie McBride. Got married about two or three months ago.



Williams: He's a reverend?



Thomas: Yes.



Williams: And he's at Lake Providence. How far is Lake Providence from here?



Thomas: About forty-something miles.



Williams: OK. Louisiana. So I need to go get over there and talk to him.



Thomas: Yes. After he left here he was in Jackson most of the time, because he went back to school, and he was gone for awhile and then he came back here and spent all his time in Jackson after that.



Williams: Mr. Thomas, I want to thank you very much for this interview, and on behalf of Tougaloo College and the University of Southern Mississippi, and I want you to promise me one thing: if I have to do an exit interview after I listen to the tapes, would you allow me to just do another little ten or fifteen minutes at some point in time, at your convenience?



Thomas: Yes. Anytime.



Williams: All right. Thank you very much.



(End of interview.)

 
 

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