by DENISE M. WATSON
photography by TODD WRIGHT
Former Virginia Supreme Court judge John Charles Thomas’ struggles, triumphs and passion have brought him back full circle to his roots in poetry.
History knows him as the youngest judge ever to sit on the Virginia Supreme Court. It notes that he was also the first African American to ascend to that hallowed sphere. Only eight served on appellate courts in the United States at the time, and his appointment was groundbreaking news, particularly for Virginia. But it’s only recently that retired jurist John Charles Thomas has felt comfortable giving himself another title: poet.
Most who have mingled with Thomas at a dinner party or legal function have heard him regale listeners with William Cullen Bryant or John McCrae or maybe with one of his own pieces.
He will soon be taking a catalog of his work, poems he has been writing since his teen years in Norfolk, to a much larger stage: Carnegie Hall, on February 23. Thomas is partnering with a composer and professor at the College of William & Mary, Sophia Serghi, in an evening that will combine his poetry and some of her work and performances by other members of the college music department.
Taking his personal work to such a prestigious, public venue doesn’t daunt him.
“I’ve spent most of my life speaking in front of people,” Thomas, 62, says in his Richmond law office, a deep chuckle rising from his chest.
But he’s kept his poetry close to his heart for another reason.
John Charles Thomas and poetry have been intertwined ever since he was born in his grandparents’ home in Huntersville, at the corner of Washington Avenue and Proescher Street in Norfolk.
Thomas, who was called Charles at home, had many forces propelling him.
He had the fortune to be born into a family known for hard work, pursuit of education and activism. His maternal grandfather, William Harvey Sears, worked at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and owned a confectionery and a dance hall called the Sears Arena to take care of his family. The kids were required to work at the store. They were also expected to be vocal and daring. The family would have round-table discussions, and the children were expected to give their opinions.
Not long after Charles was born, his mother, Floretta Sears Thomas, became a founder of the group CURE, the Committee Undoing Racial Evils. In the ’60s, she led a civil rights group called the Committee of 100 Women, and later was active in the Women’s Political Caucus. At one point, Floretta Sears Thomas angered so many people that she, a nurse, could not get a job in the area. She left to work in New York when Charles, the oldest of four, was a teen.
But even before then, Charles was raised by committee – uncles who’d pass on the discipline they’d learned in the military, and an army of aunts, all of whom went to college and went into service fields such as education. While Charles Thomas would later join the state Supreme Court, he had a cousin, Leah Ward Sears, who would become the first woman and the youngest person to sit on Georgia’s Supreme Court.
Lula Sears Rogers, the youngest of his 14 aunts and uncles, was about nine years older than he.
“He was always smart as a whip,” Rogers says,
remembering many afternoons and evenings babysitting Charles and sitting with him on the front porch. “He would say, ‘Oh, Aunt Lula, look at that star and that star.’ He knew everything. … He would sit and tell me what was going on.”
Rogers says her father had the greatest impact on Charles when it came to sonnets and lyrics. Thomas agrees. He said his granddaddy figured out that the young boy had a good memory.
“He’d send me to the hardware store and say ‘get this and that’ and I would,” Thomas says.
When he was around 4, Granddaddy, who loved poetry, started feeding him lines of William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis. His grandfather would then stand him on the side porch of the house, surrounded by his grandfather’s buddies, and make the boy recite.
“Here I am this little boy, To him who in the love of Nature holds / Communion with her visible forms, she speaks, arms straight at my sides,” Thomas recalls. “His buddies are cheering me on, ‘Go, go, go!’ ‘Be expressive!’ ‘Stand up straight!’ ”
Then Thomas became the kid who got called up to the pulpit at First Baptist Bute Street, the family church, to recite Bible verses. When he was at Jacox Junior High, he had a teacher who reinforced the public speaking and love of poetry. She made students recite Shakespearean soliloquies and perform plays, expecting nothing but the best from her students.
Then came the summer of 1965 and, Thomas has said, the summer of “Freedom of Choice.” More than 10 years after Brown vs. Board of Education had ruled that segregated schools were prohibited, integration in Virginia schools was still at a minimum. Thomas was slated to attend the traditionally all-black Booker T. Washington High School, but the Freedom of Choice plan stated that blacks could attend white schools and vice versa. Many in the black community, however, knew white students would not attend their schools.
John Charles Thomas was one of a few selected students called into a class and told that they’d have to attend one of the white schools to prove that mass integration could work.
Thomas attended Maury High School and did well, but he had a life-altering day in 1967. It was his senior year, and he was sitting in a study hall on a Monday – he remembers it precisely – and noticed that some of his classmates from his Advanced English class were polishing assignments. He then realized he’d forgotten to do the assignment, which could be a poem; it was due the next bell.
“I thought, ‘In 25 minutes, I have to write a poem.’ ”
It wasn’t a daunting task; by now, he had been viewed as the best of the best in his community and at his old schools, and he was performing well at Maury. Thomas was the one who’d been groomed to excel no matter what was put before him.
He did not know how to begin, but when he put pencil to paper the words formed easily: The Morning is the time for man to rise…
The idea came from the previous day’s church service, when the minister told the story of a man who would set his watch every night before going to bed. The timepiece, though, still lost time the next day. The man took it to several repair shops until someone told him that he shouldn’t set it in the evening but in the morning, so that he could start the day on a strong spring.
The purpose of the story, Thomas says, was to impart the importance of praying not only at night but in the morning, too.
Thomas rewrote the poem neatly on a legal pad, then took it to class and stacked it with the others.
Later the teacher came up to him, the paper in hand.
After all of these decades of firsts and accomplishments, standing on national stages, Thomas can still picture his high school English teacher on that day. He demonstrates how she picked up his poem, read it, then walked to his desk, holding it by one corner. She tossed it down like a smelly rag she could not stand to touch.
She told him sternly: “I reject this. I do not believe a colored child could have written this.”
The Morning is the time for man to rise
Review the things that formed his past
Make all his disappointments and mistakes quite clear
So they will be his last
The Morning is the time for man to think
Of all the things to come
To plot, to plan, to try his best
To be ahead when day is done
The Morning is the time for man to dream
Of things not yet conceived
To gather his thoughts and ideas round
The things that he alone believes
The Morning is the time for man to rise
And Think and Dream and See
That all the world depends on men
Who with thoughts of hope the day begin
John Charles Thomas
All rights reserved
Thomas was devastated. She thought he wasn’t good enough to have written the poem; the years of accolades and proving himself an outstanding student were slapped down in a second by a bigoted teacher. His mother went to the school to resolve the issue; he received an A in the class. But the damage was done. His self-assuredness was rocked. When poems started popping into his head after that, he’d write them down, date them and put them away, as if they could never be good enough.
“I kept it to myself because of that rejection.”
Thomas didn’t – and still doesn’t – sit down to write poetry. He can’t command the muse to speak. It speaks to him when it is ready. But he could be attending a program or be between classes and something would strike him and he’d write down the lines on programs or napkins. Words came to him when he graduated with honors from Maury in the fiery year of 1968, when Vietnam raged and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. He enrolled at the University of Virginia, where, he remembers, he became one of about a dozen African Americans in a freshman class of about 1,400. He served on the University President’s Committee on Equality, Education, Opportunity, Obligations and Rights. He was also president of the Black Students for Freedom and on the Dean’s List of distinguished students.
When Linwood Holton was elected governor in 1969, Thomas wrote him a letter to remind him of his campaign promise to include more students in government. The governor appointed him to the Virginia Commission on Children and Youth. John Charles Thomas was local news, and the lines of poetry still came to him. He’d write them down, but he still did not feel comfortable sharing that part of his life.
After graduating from U.Va.’s law school in 1975, Thomas interviewed with firms around the state and was told, even with his impressive grades, that he couldn’t be hired. One firm told him, “Your record is fine, but we think if we were to give you a job our clients would leave us.”
Thomas, who had clerked at the civil rights division of the Justice Department in Washington, called people there. He learned that other black graduates were having the same problem. Thomas also contacted his dean at U.Va., who made calls to some of the state’s biggest firms. He reminded them of the trouble they could be courting.
Thomas then got a call from one of the few places he hadn’t applied – the prestigious Hunton & Williams, one of the top law groups in the country. The firm had once worked on Dorothy E. Davis, et al. vs. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, which would eventually join four others to become the landmark Brown vs. Board, seeking to preserve segregation. Thomas was hired, and the difference a few decades had made was not lost on him.
In 1982, Thomas became the first African-American partner at the firm. He became national news.
It was a busy time for him, and he still wrote his poetry. He got married and, in 1983, Governor Charles S. Robb appointed him to the state’s highest court. At 32, he was not only the first black but also the youngest person ever to be appointed. The average age of the justices, at the time, was in the early 50s.
Again Thomas was in the national limelight. The New York Times and The Washington Post attended the press conference for the announcement.
“The State Supreme Court was the most resistant to change,” said one political scientist in The Virginian-Pilot. “Putting a black on the court that fought integration is not only a breathtaking symbolic change but also one that will help moderate its image.”
Critics thought Robb should have selected someone with more experience, but he told newspaper reporters that Thomas was a solid choice. In noting that he had been out of law school only eight years, the governor said, “I was out of law school for the same period when I was elected governor of Virginia.”
Thomas wore the historical significance like a badge of honor. He told news reporters that he took the appointment “as a matter of history. Black people have put their lives on the line so others like myself” could serve.
On the bench, Thomas made his mark. The court became among the first in the country to allow DNA evidence. He also wrote a key opinion that ruled husbands could be charged with raping their wives. He’d still write poetry, but he kept it in his family, which now included three children.
Then one night in 1989 he woke up to find paramedics in his bedroom.
He’d had a seizure.
Halfway through his 12-year term on the court, he quickly tendered his resignation. Publicly, he pointed to health reasons, but he would not be specific. It was a brain tumor. The tumor was benign and did not require immediate surgery. Thomas had other concerns. “I wondered if I would be able to write,” he says.
He returned to Hunton & Williams. Then in 1995, he got a surprise. The lines for another poem emerged. The next year he had brain surgery and wrote four more poems. Others followed, but he still would not advertise his written work.
Then in 2011, Thomas was at a function of the William & Mary Board of Visitors, of which he is a member, when he was reciting one of his poems. Professor Serghi remembers it well. She’d attended the function because it was at the home of Bruce Hornsby and she was hoping to get some time on his famous Zurich piano.
At one point, she says, Thomas introduced himself to her. Then for the duration of what she called “this very serious faculty meeting,” Thomas continued with the poetry.
“For about two hours, it was remarkable.”
Later, she got her chance to sit at Hornsby’s piano. She played one of her pieces, Allure. Within a couple days, she says, she received a poem from Thomas called The Allure of the Muse. He had been inspired by her music and, as his poetry does, this one had just worked its way into being. It was his first in 10 years. “I was honored,” Serghi says.
The two talked repeatedly and she suggested he join her on the stage at Carnegie, where she’d already had a performance planned. Thomas said no, then hesitated, then relented. The thought, he says, just hit him.
So John Charles Thomas, the poet, has arrived. At Carnegie, he will begin with the first poem he wrote all those years ago in 1967 and will reveal to hundreds all the thoughts and images that have been there along the journey. The words had always poured forth when they were ready.
And, finally, so is Thomas.