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Black Arts and Culture

Va.’s First Black Supreme Ct. Justice Pens Historic Memoir

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

As a child John Charles Thomas, recalls that one of his fondest memories was his grandfather, William H. Sears, teaching him poetry and other literary works connected with the Masonic tradition. In turn, he would recite poetry back to the old man.

The two sat on the side porch of the huge childhood home in the Sears family compound that sat at Washington and Proescher Streets in Huntersville.

It was not only a dwelling where at least 10 or more people of three generations lived at any one time; but also, the enterprising family ran a general store and the only post office which served the community in the 1950s at that location.

He joined members of his family and other boys in the area, selling the Journal and Guide on the street corners and door to door each week.

“Guide for sale … Guide for sale … 15 cents Guide for sale,” Thomas recalled saying to passersby. “When we approached homes, people would turn out their lights and play like they were not home. I would push the paper under the door. Later I would collect in pennies.”

Walking home, with the pockets of his bibbed overalls filled with pennies, he sounded “like a brass band.”

Thomas said young thugs heard the sound from a mile away.

“A lot of times I did not make it home with those pennies. I would get jumped and robbed,” Thomas recalled. “Whatever was left I would take home and give to my grandmother, Eunice.”

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Thomas grew up witnessing and experiencing the oppression of Jim Crow segregation, the erratic and abusive behavior of his father, and the sometimes rough nature of his Norfolk neighborhood until he left for college in 1965.

These and other recollections have been compiled in his recently release memoir “The Poetic Justice” (University of Virginia Press).

On November 10, Thomas will share passages from his memoir at a book signing at the Attucks Theater in Norfolk from 6 to 8 p.m.

Early reviews of the book describe Thomas’ ascension from an enterprising dreamer in a huge clan in urban Norfolk, to become a highly regarded lawyer, jurist and man of letters.

In 1983 Thomas was appointed by then Governor Charles Robb as the first African American to the State Supreme Court.

“I made history. Black historians came to me and said I should write down what happens while I am on the court,” he said during a recent interview with the GUIDE. “But I was busy. I was starting a family and working as a judge on the court. But I remembered so much. I sat down last year and finally did it.”

Thomas’ career on the court ran from 1983 to 1989, cut short due to the detection of a brain tumor which sidelined him.

But after he overcame what could have been a life ending tumor, he continued using his law skills at the Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP law firm.

In 2005, Thomas was named a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is based in Lausanne, Switzerland. The members of the Court include lawyers and former jurists from around the world. CAS is an independent arbitral institution created in 1983 to settle sports-related disputes involving drug violations and rules of international sports federations. It heard cases related to sporting competition.

Thomas said he is retired now from the legal profession.

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Even before Thomas arrived on the state’s high court, he found himself walking down stretches of his life journey, deemed historic.

“At first, I dreamed of being a scientist,” said Thomas. “But I was hearing about the struggles in Birmingham where children were attacked with dogs and fire hoses, or adults beaten on the (Edmond Pettus Bridge). People told me that if I wanted to help change things for Black people, I should be a lawyer.”

In February of 1959, 17 Black students, walked into the history books. They were the first Black students to be enrolled in six all-white Norfolk schools.

Thurgood Marshall and other Black lawyers working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, waged legal battles to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to declare public school segregation illegal.

For four years after the court’s ruling, Virginia “resisted” complying with the Brown Decision. But NAACP lawyers convinced a lower federal court in Norfolk that such efforts violated the high court’s decision.

In 1965, Thomas and several other Black students would write another chapter to overcome “Massive Resistance” to the order.

“I was in my last year at Jacox Middle School,” said Thomas. “Some teacher got me and other students together and told us that ‘they wanted some of us to go to a white school.”

They asked us to raise our hands if we wanted to go, and “we asked why?”

“They said they wanted us to help them fight for integration,” he said.

Thomas raised his hand, although he felt the decision had been made for him.

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At that time Norfolk and other school divisions across the South used the “Freedom of Choice” school plan. Parents could select the nearest all-white or Black school to enroll their child.

Most Black parents chose the all-Black schools, and the whites chose all white ones.

It was another ruse to avoid complying with Brown.

The Norfolk 17 reported all forms of verbal abuse and isolation at the six schools they attended.

“Well, nobody cursed us or threw things or punched us,” Thomas recalled, as being a member of the second wave of Black students to attend the formerly all-white Norfolk schools. “I got to know some white kids. I was even a sports trainer and they called me Doc. We made history and the GUIDE and other papers covered it.

Out of 1400 freshmen, Thomas, L.D. Britt, and a now deceased Wallace Perkins, were three Black male students in a sea of white males at the University of Virginia (UVA) in the fall of 1968.

No women could attend at the time.

“We got close and hung out together,” he recalled. “We rigged up a radio to listen to a Black radio station out of Lynchburg.”

He enrolled in the UVA law school in 1972

When he graduated from law school in 1975, Thomas joined the prestigious commercial law firm Hunton & Williams, then styled Hunton, Williams, Gay & Gibson.

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“I was the first Black law graduate hired by a firm at that level in the South,” he said. “I worked all the time, and this was before computers or Internet. I was in the library with books sometimes all night. You had to use the Xerox machines to copy material from the books and paste it to study and prepare for cases.”

Later he was named a partner-part owner; another first for a southern law firm.

Thomas is retired now. But apart from his legacy as a lawyer and jurist it also rests in another important area.

“Everywhere I go now, I see young lawyers that I mentored or encouraged along the way or spoke to their class,” he said. “That is just as important to me to inspire young Black people in a field that created so much change in this nation.”

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