His grandfather sent Thomas into this White world with two conditions: "You can't quit," and "Don't shame me, and don't shame our race."
"We believed so strongly that, if given a chance, we could do as well or better than whites at anything," Thomas says. "(So) you could not give up … you didn't have that right once you got started, because then that would be I think proof positive that we couldn't do it. So yes, the burden was there and we felt it. It was palpable. And somehow it becomes part of your nature."
It was his first real contact with white people, and Thomas wrote of his feelings of panic and anxiety — the price his generation of blacks paid for moving out from behind the wall of segregation. When he first arrived, he wrote that he was struck by a "sea of white faces" and thought "they were all staring at me." Thomas wrote that his "panic gave way to a constant state of anxiety."
"I saw all those white kids, and I said, 'oh my goodness,'" Thomas says. "It put you in a constant state of fear of failure, that you did not have the option to fail or to be mediocre … You had to watch your conduct. You had to not reaffirm any stereotypes. You had to break down the barriers through personal performance."
Amid the crushing pressure, one of the priests asked to speak with Thomas about his speech, which was heavily accented with the dialect of the Georgia low-country. He told Thomas he would have to learn to talk "properly" if he didn't 'want to be thought of as inferior.'" Thomas wrote that those words were a slap in the face.
"I of course just conflated everything and thought that he was saying I was inferior," Thomas says. "And I went off to the chapel to pray."
Thomas was a diligent and, by all accounts, highly successful student. He was determined to succeed, to prove himself, not only for himself, but for his race. When he returned home on weekends, Thomas says his proud grandfather would take him to the local NAACP meetings so he could report on his grades. He had become one of the school's top students, and the couple dozen people at the meetings — most were laborers, maids or cooks — would applaud his reports. He was a symbol.
"What he wanted me to do was to simply report that I was doing well," Thomas says. "I was proof positive that they had been right, that all of their dreams … You'd have these older ladies. They're working. These are people who didn't have much.
"They would just reach into their inner garments and pull out a dollar that was crumpled and hand it to you (and say), 'Boy, you get your education, and don't listen to these other kids out here. Because once you get it up here,'" Thomas says, pointing to his head, "'no one can take it away from you.'"
Thomas says his reports at those meetings — and the admonitions he heard from all those older black women who toiled for little pay in the homes of white people — would forever stay with him.
"That's why it's so important when you hear me from time to time say, 'look, what is critical isn't you just sort of absorb what other people tell you you've got to do because you're black. You think for yourself. That's what they were talking about, that once you have it here," he says, pointing again to his head, "you think it through yourself and nobody can make you think anything.