"The people who claim to be so progressive and forward-thinking are far more pernicious than the Southerners were, because so much of that in the '60s was ignorance. This was intentional, and this was by very well-heeled and well-positioned people," he says in describing the attitudes he would encounter among white liberals later in life. "But that's fine. It doesn't matter … because in the end, as those ladies said at the NAACP meeting, once you get it in your head, nobody can take it away from you."
After graduating, Thomas continued his studies to be a priest at Immaculate Conception seminary, where he again was the only black student. And again, race — and racism — is ever present, although, as in high school, he made good friends and was known for his booming laugh and outgoing manner.
But Thomas became disenchanted with the church and its failure to condemn racism, and decided to leave.
"When you go to church, there's a big focus on ending abortion. When I went to church back in the '60s, there was no focus on ending segregation, except from the nuns, who were adamant from day one," Thomas says. "The Church wasn't. It seemed to be more accommodating, again, at least from where I stood. And I just thought that had they been as principled as the nuns or as forceful as they are on the issue of abortion now, I would have gone on and become a priest."
Thomas says he "wanted to go home … back to where I was comfortable."
"I didn't want to fight all the racial battles. I didn't want to be the only black anymore. I didn't want to keep having to figure out new things and new places. I didn't want to be the only one, or one of two," he says. "I wanted to go back to where I was comfortable, and that was home. That was with other blacks, that was in the South, that was with my relatives."
But his decision to quit went against everything his grandfather had taught him, he says. When he got home and tried explained his decision, his grandfather was devastated.
"I was tired. I was 19 years old and tired and confused and upset, and I wanted to go home. The other thing is, you get lonely. When you hear these people, these theorists, talking about putting little black kids in all-white environments, you go do it for awhile. You go be the only white in a black environment and see how easy it is. It is not all that easy, and everybody can't do it," Thomas says. "And that's what I said to my grandfather. At some point, you just get worn down. Well, he wasn't having any part of that."
Anderson, a hard man who Thomas had never seen so much as shed a tear, later went outside and wept. The next morning, he asked Thomas to leave, saying "you'll probably end up like your no-good daddy and those other no-good Pinpoint negroes." That harsh prediction would haunt Thomas for most of life.
"He told me that day I was to leave his house," Thomas says, "and I left."
Thomas moved back in with his mother, reversing the journey, as he puts it, that he made as a child. He could not go "home."
"I recognized, after my first year at the seminary, that I would be in a no man's land, that I could never return to the world of Pinpoint and Liberty County and 543 32nd Street, and I would never be a part of this other world," he says. "That was an uncertain path, and you're 19 years old. But I knew for certain that I could be in neither world."
To continue on to Part III: Going North, please click here.