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    Entries in Frederick Thomas (109)

    The Detective, or How I Researched THE BLACK RUSSIAN (Part 1)

    When I first came across a reference to a “Russian” black man named “Tomas” [“Томас” in Cyrillic] who owned a nightclub in Constantinople (about which more later), this was such a surprise and seemed so unlikely that I immediately wanted to know more.  Like anyone who needs a quick answer to a new question, I started by Googling.  But what little popped up mostly repeated what my original source had said.  Then, a keyword search of library collections turned up Allison Blakely’s pioneering book, Russia and the Negro, which had two paragraphs on “Thomas,” as I discovered his surname was spelled in English, and cited several other sources that eventually, after various twists and turns, proved invaluable.  From these I learned that Thomas may actually have been an American, and that his first name was “George” (which was incorrect, as I discovered only later).  But by this point, I was hooked; I had become obsessed with discovering the truth about a man long dead and largely forgotten. 

    No detail was too small to pursue because I never knew where a particular strand might lead.  This is how I found one of Frederick Thomas’s grandchildren in Paris.  I never expected anything like this, and my discovery showed me that without chance and luck even the most diligent researcher could fail to get very far.  When I look back on the chain of unlikely coincidences that led to my meeting Frederick’s grandson, I still feel surprised and incredulous. (To be continued, of course!)

    Frederick Thomas's Birth Date, or The Challenges of Genealogy (Part 2 of 2)

    The 1880 U. S. Census suggests a way to resolve the discrepancies involving the year Frederick was actually born and what his mother's name was (see previous post) . 

    On June 5 of that year, an enumerator visited the Thomas farm in Coahoma County and noted that Lewis Thomas was the head of the household; but now he was married to a woman whose name reads either “Juda” or “Inda” (the census-taker’s handwriting is unclear).  They have three sons, one of whom is “Fredrick,” eight years old (thus indicating a birthday in 1872), while the others are “Yancy” and “John”; there is no “Kate” or “William.”  Given what Frederick said in 1924, “Juda/Inda” is clearly the census taker’s mistake for “India,” much like the other mistakes in names that appeared in the 1870 records.  Thus, a plausible conclusion is that Hannah was Lewis’s first wife and that after she died at some point between 1870 and 1880, he married India.  As I mentioned before, this region of Mississippi was in fact notorious for its recurring epidemics of yellow fever that killed tens of thousands of people throughout the nineteenth century (especially virulent ones swept through in 1873, 1878, and 1879), so it is hardly surprising to find major changes in families between the two censuses.  Frederick’s remarks in 1924 about his mother’s death were thus probably about Hannah.  This supposition is confirmed by additional census data, which indicates that Hannah was Frederick’s birth mother and India his stepmother.  This follows from the notation that Frederick’s mother was apparently born in Maryland (once again, the handwriting is unclear), which matches Hannah’s birth state as indicated in the 1870 census, but not India’s Alabama, as noted in the 1880 census.  In fact, the mother’s birthplace for all of the children in both censuses is given as Maryland.  (Lewis’s birthplace is consistently Virginia.)  If Frederick’s age was indeed “8” on June 5, 1880, then his mother, Hannah, must have died at some time after June of 1872, which puts a possible early limit on when Lewis might have married India.  However, because “8” was probably the enumerator’s, or little Frederick’s, or someone else’s best guess at his age rather than a precise determination, Hannah might have passed out of Lewis’s life closer to 1870 or a bit later than 1872.  None of this correlates with Frederick’s recollection in 1924 that his mother died when he was four or five, which would mean 1876 or 1877, if one accepts the census data.  However, he may simply have misremembered the timing of events that had occurred decades earlier.

    The difference in children’s names between the 1870 and 1880 censuses also needs to be explained.  Assuming that the second enumerator in 1870, who visited the Thomas farm in September, did not simply omit Kate, it would appear that she died young.  William was three years old in 1870 and does not appear in 1880, which means that he also probably died.  John was eight months old in 1870 and is ten years old in 1880, which correlates well.  As for “Darby/Yancy” who was “9” in both 1870 records, he reappears as eighteen-year-old “Yancy” in 1880, which suggests that this was his actual name and is reasonably consistent in terms of age. 

    Determining the actual date of Frederick Thomas’s birth is complicated by other documents.  In his eight applications for American passports between 1896 and 1921 when he was in Europe, Frederick (as he always spelled his first name when he wrote it himself) gave dates in the 1860s, albeit differing ones—15 November 1863, 4 November 1868, 15 November 1868, 4 November 1869 (some of these are likely transcription errors made by consular clerks when they copied details from an old passport to issue a new one, such as an “8” being misread as a “3” and leading to the eccentric birth year of “1863”).  I chose November 4th as Frederick’s birthday because it is the day and month he gives in what are probably the three most reliable documents extant:  his first application for a passport, which he made in Paris in 1896, when he was younger and presumably remembered his past more accurately;  his passport application in Constantinople in 1921, when it was crucial for him to receive American recognition;  and his autobiographical statement from 1924, on which his future livelihood, safety, and family’s well-being depended.  “1872” is dictated by the age given in the 1880 census and by John’s birth, which makes it impossible for Hannah to have given birth to Frederick in 1869.

    This means that November 4, 2012, will be the 140th anniversary of Frederick Bruce Thomas's birth.  I should organize a party!

    Unraveling details like this in his life is part of what made working on his biography absolutely fascinating and very addictive:  the more I learned, the more little strands of information I found and connected, the more I wanted to search.


    Frederick Thomas's Birth Date, or The Challenges of Genealogy (Part 1 of 2)

    This longer post (split into two parts so as not try the reader's patience too much--as well as to keep her/him reading!) illustrates some of the issues I encountered in my genealogical/historical research.  Assembling the information and correlating it was a fascinating task.  However, the resulting analysis was much too long and intricate to include in the final version of the book.

    Information about Frederick Thomas’s birth date and parents has to be assembled from a variety of sources.  An important document is an oral autobiographical statement by Frederick that was written down in 1924 by an American consular official in Constantinople.  In it Frederick gives his birthday as November 4, 1869, says that his father’s and mother’s names were Lewis and India, and claims that she died when he was four or five years old, or in the 1870s.  However, U. S. Census data suggest that he was mistaken about the year of his birth and that it was closer to 1872.  Moreover, a number of documents preserved in the Coahoma County Courthouse in Clarksdale, Mississippi, dating from 1879 to 1890, prove that India was very much alive and still married to Lewis during this period.  Additional documents filed after Lewis’s death in 1890 refer to India as his widow, and several of these name Frederick as her son.  How can these discrepancies be explained?  One possibility is that the consular official in Constantinople made mistakes in what he wrote down; another is that Frederick misremembered when he was recollecting events from fifty years earlier.  However, this is more likely with regard to his birth date than to his mother’s name.  A third possibility is that Frederick misrepresented his relations with India for psychological reasons, possibly due to a dreadful event that occurred in the family’s life in 1890 (about which, more later).

    The census enumerators who went through rural America to count heads in 1870 tried to be accurate but they made mistakes nevertheless.  In the case of Frederick Thomas’s family, the most striking error is that enumerators counted the family twice, on July 30 and September 5, and gave two different locations for their farm—Coahoma County and neighboring Tallahatchie County, both in northwestern Mississippi.  As multiple documents in the Coahoma County Courthouse prove, the Thomases in fact lived in the southeastern corner of Coahoma County.  However, because their farm was only half a mile or so from the border with Tallahatchie County, and because orienting oneself and traveling in that region was very difficult in 1870 and later (see my earlier posts about the heavily-forested, wet terrain, and the scarcity of roads), it appears that a census taker strayed over the county line in September and counted the family a second time.  Comparing the two 1870 records also shows how inaccurate the census process could be, as well as how casual people were about their ages at a time when paper records were scarce.  “Lewis” in the first record is spelled “Louis” in the second.  The parents’ ages differ by a few years—“Lewis” is “36” while “Louis” is “33,” his wife is “34” and “32.”  A child, nine-year old “Darby” in the first is “Yancy” in the second; John is “8 months” old on July 30 and “6 months” on September 5;  Kate is “5” years old in the first but does not appear at all in the second (in this instance it is also possible that she died between the two enumerators’ visits).  By contrast, “William” in Coahoma is likely “Wilmer” (the handwriting is unclear) in Tallahatchie, but is consistently “3” in both.  The Coahoma enumerator splits the family in two and gives them two houses, but the Tallahatchie enumerator does not.  These differences might also have been the consequence of the regulation in 1870 that allowed federal enumerators to ask anyone who was over twenty years old at a given property for information about everyone else who lived there.  This information could have come as readily from a hired hand as from a family member. 

    However, the redundancy of the two 1870 records is also very useful because it makes possible the verification of two important bits of information.  The first is that neither of the 1870 records mentions Frederick, who claimed that he was born in 1869 and should therefore have been listed.  This is strong evidence for his actually having been born after September 1870.  Confirming this conclusion is the baby in the family.  If John was between 6 and 8 months around August of 1870, then he must have been born between December of 1869 and February of 1870.  This means that his mother could not have given birth to Frederick in November of 1869 as well.  Furthermore, Frederick was still referred to as a “minor” in a court document dated 4 June 1891, which means that he was younger than twenty-one on that date and therefore born after 4 June 1870.  The second important fact is that both 1870 records list a woman in the family named Hannah, not India. (to be continued)

    How Slaves Reacted to the Emancipation Proclamation

    Throughout most of the Delta and the South, the institution of slavery started to collapse right after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and while the Civil War was still being fought.  Despite the brutal efforts of whites to maintain control over their slaves, many blacks rebelled against overseers and masters, refused efforts to evacuate them, seized livestock and other property, and escaped to areas occupied by Union troops.  It is easy to imagine that when news of their emancipation reached Frederick Thomas’s parents, Lewis and Hannah, they, like most blacks, erupted with joy.  An observer in one Delta community recalled that the former slaves “got together and laughed and sang and danced all night rejoicing”; another wrote, “they jumped and hollered and carried on something terrible.  The boys in blue came by to excite them even more.”  One old black woman who had been punished by her white owner for refusing to work by being forced to sit on an ant-infested log jumped off and began to run around “shouting and hollering” when she learned that slaves had been freed.

    Incredible Efforts by Owners to Preserve Slavery During and After the Civil War

    We do not know exactly what Frederick Thomas's parents and family experienced during the Civil War, which brought great destruction to Coahoma County.  However, as Cobb (reference in first post below) and other historians have described, Union armies blew up levees, which allowed the Mississippi to flood some areas that had been farmland; burned and looted plantation mansions and slave cabins alike; drove away horses and other livestock; and confiscated cotton and other crops.  When some slave owners heard that Union troops were approaching, they tried to preserve their property as best they could by forcing their slaves into the forests and swamps and hiding them.  Even when the war ended, some planters were still so wedded to slavery that they tried to conceal from the blacks on their estates that they had been freed.  One ex-slave from a Coahoma County plantation who was interviewed in the 1930s recalled that he and his fellow slaves did not know that they had been freed for four years after the end of the war.  Another from neighboring Bolivar County said it took three years for ex-slaves to discover that they were free.  In all these cases, the ex-slaves had been forced to work by their former masters as if emancipation had not been proclaimed and the South had not been defeated.

    Visiting the Delta and the Blues

    Nice article in The Root today entitled "Rolling Down the Blues Highway: Enjoy Mississippi's musical history by visiting spots like the Delta Blues Museum and Po' Monkey's juke joint."  As I commented in a post following the article, there's another well-known place in the area to hear blues now--the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the seat of Coahoma County, which is in the middle of the Delta blues country. It's next door to the Delta Blues Museum, has scheduled performances, and even has rooms to stay above it. One of the owners is the famous actor Morgan Freeman (he was also part owner of a very good, upscale restaurant in Clarksdale called Madidi, which unfortunately closed recently). The musical traditions of Coahoma County of course predate the appearance of the blues. And one of Coahoma's most famous sons was my subject, the remarkable Frederick Bruce Thomas, who was born near Clarksdale in 1872, and who went on to run variety shows with lots of music in Moscow, and was the first to import jazz to Constantinople.  There is evidence that his commitment to different kinds of music began during his childhood in the Delta.

    The Slaves' Backbreaking Labor in the Delta, or What Frederick's Parents Did Before 1869

    Hardly anything is known about the lives of Frederick Thomas’s parents, Lewis and Hannah, before 1869, except for what they had in common with other enslaved blacks in the Delta.  The life of a slave in this region was harder than in many other places in the South.  The amount of labor the land required to prepare it for planting, the longer annual agricultural cycle in the warm climate, the great financial investment that many planters made in land and slaves in the remote location, and the eagerness of the planters for quick profits from spectacular crops—all caused them to drive their slaves especially hard.  On new plantations in the Delta on the eve of the Civil War, slaves spent the winters splitting rails for fences, building cabins, clearing new ground and digging ditches.  Bad weather did not stop them.  When spring came, slaves first had to plow the land and then plant the cotton and corn, notwithstanding any delays caused by floods.  If there was spare time from this labor or from hoeing the rows, they spent it continuing to cut cane and clear the land.  Cotton picking would begin in summer and could continue as late as January, thus completing a yearly cycle of backbreaking work.  Summer heat would bring attacks of fevers that could strike down many field hands, but those who could stand would have to fill in to gather the harvest.  Field work was done by both sexes and all ages, except for the very youngest and the oldest and most decrepit.  Additional chores would include slaves working on their masters’ and their own food supplies, such as preparing salt pork.  On one occasion, slaves of a prominent planter were recorded as slaughtering thirty-seven hogs by eight in the morning, and finishing butchering and salting all the meat by midday.  If slaves displeased the white overseers, they could be whipped.

    Critters and People in Coahoma County, or What Life was Like in Frederick’s Childhood Home

    Coahoma was one of several new counties formed in the state of Mississippi in 1836 from what had been Indian lands (the county name means "red panther" in Choctaw), but despite a rapid increase in settlers, its population was still sparse on the eve of the Civil War--a little over 6,000 people, of whom more than three-quarters were slaves.

    Even in the later part of the nineteenth century, the Delta still looked like a wilderness and teemed with wildlife to an extent that is now difficult to conceive.  This made hunting and fishing the simplest way to provide meat for the table, for white and black people alike.  Colonel Robert Eager Bobo, a planter near Clarksdale, the Coahoma County seat, who claimed the distinction of being the first white to actually be born in the County, became nationally famous for his exploits as a bear hunter.  In 1869, the year Frederick’s parents started out as farmers in Coahoma County, he killed 304 bears, including one that weighed 711 pounds after being gutted.

    However, not all forms of the abundant life in the Delta were prey for humans—the opposite was true as well.  The large areas of standing water and the hot climate created perfect breeding conditions for clouds of mosquitoes that appeared every spring, making whites who could afford it eager to leave the region for higher and cooler ground.  One planter’s wife complained that during the warmest months her baby son “rolls on the floor, scratches and screams every evening as if he would go crazy—he is as badly marked as one just recovering from the small-pox.”  Mosquitoes also brought malaria and yellow fever; water borne illnesses ravaged the Delta’s inhabitants as well.  Epidemics killed thousands in the nineteenth century, and the black population suffered most of all.

    Welcome to my THE BLACK RUSSIAN blog

    Welcome to my blog, which is dedicated to things connected with, and circling around, my forthcoming biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas. 

    Because his remarkable life was so varied and spanned the globe, there are lots of different topics about which I'd like to post.  I plan to do so regularly in the weeks and months ahead. 

    One of my sources is what I had to leave on the "cutting room floor" as I trimmed the 750-page manuscript of the book to produce the final version, which was less than half that length.  When I was researching the book, I wanted to find out about, and to describe in detail, all kinds of things related to FT's life and times ("FT" became my shorthand reference to him after a while, especially for the benefit of my wife, son, and daughter--who patiently listened to my stories over the course of several years).  I could not keep a lot of this really interesting material in the book, and so am pleased to be able to share it here.  Much of my information about Coahoma County in Mississippi, where Frederick was born and lived in his youth, comes from two valuable books:  James C. Cobb's The Most Southern Place on Earth:  The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (Oxford, 1992); and Linton Weeks's Clarksdale and Coahoma County (Clarksdale, MS, 1982).

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