But his grandfather made it clear those luxuries were earned by working. It would be a childhood of little tenderness and "unbending rules," Thomas wrote. He made the boys bathe in a teaspoon of water, using laundry detergent instead of soap. And wouldn't let them wear gloves on cold winter mornings when delivering fuel oil. Thomas's first and only embrace with his grandfather would come when he was a grown man.
As unyielding as his grandfather was, though, Thomas credits him with saving his life and making him the person he is. Anderson put his generation's hopes and dreams on a young Thomas's shoulders, demanding he be something more. And he imbued in his grandson ideas, often said in Southern colloquialisms, that Thomas would take from Savannah to the Supreme Court.
In conversation today, Thomas often uses a phrase his grandfather told him as a child: "Play the hand you're dealt." Thomas's wife, Virginia, had a bust of his grandfather made when Thomas first joined the Court. On it is a saying Thomas heard often as a child: "Old man can't is dead. I helped bury him."
"You know, you're a little kid. You say, 'I can't do this, I can't do that.' And he wouldn't hear it," Thomas says.
Anderson also delivered a stern warning to Thomas: "Don't shame me, and don't shame the race." That phrase, too, would haunt Thomas throughout his life.
Thomas faced numerous instances of racism throughout his childhood. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, when blacks couldn't go to the same schools, parks, beaches or restaurants. The state enforced that system by law. It was reinforced by countless stories of blacks being brutalized by whites if they strayed out of their "place."
"The system was clear. You'd go to this school. You were supposed to conduct yourself this way. You couldn't walk into this park. You couldn't vote here. You couldn't walk through this neighborhood after dark. There were all of these rules," Thomas says.
"There were no bathrooms for you, no facilities on the road, no place you could stay," Thomas continues. "Now people can go to Travelodge, Motel 8, do whatever they want. You don't think about it. But back then, when you took a trip, you had to plan. The food had to be there. You had to plan where you were going to get gas. You couldn't just go any place."
Thomas went to all-black schools through the 10th grade, but he was conscious even then of distinctions based on class and skin color. He wrote about being insulted by black classmates "because of the darkness of my skin" and says he was referred to as "ABC," or "America's Blackest Child." His only real encounter with whites was with the nuns and the priests.
"We didn't consider them white. They were nuns. You had white priests and white nuns, but they were considered nuns and priests," Thomas says. "That's sort of like thinking of angels. You didn't think of angels as white or black. They were angels."
Thomas, who had grown up as an altar boy, decided he wanted to become a priest. A Catholic boarding school prepared boys for the seminary, so Thomas "dared to leave the comfort zone of segregation," he wrote, and transferred there, enrolling in 10th grade. The school, St. John Vianney, had never admitted a black student. Thomas and another classmate were the only blacks there. The classmate left after a year, leaving Thomas as the only one.