Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Neighbors and Sister Mary Virgilius

BOND: Who were the people who’ve been most significant in helping you develop your talents? I know the influence your grandfather had, but are there other people besides him?

THOMAS: You know, I’d have to really stay close to home with that because, you know, as the years have passed and I think about the people I’ve learned about or the people who have participated in my education, etc., it all goes back to the most crucial parts of my life and those would be people like my neighbors, my cousins. These were uneducated people in Liberty County. You’ve been there.

BOND: Right.

THOMAS: You’ve been around Bryan County. You’ve been out in the rural parts of Chatham County. And those people had more of a direct influence on me. Now, in the educational arena, I have to start with the nuns, because the thing that they never bought into was the sense that somehow we were different and we were to be treated separately. Their expectations were that we were going to parochial schools and we would learn the parochial school curriculum. And there were no excuses. So they had an influence, but then it goes on from there and it gets a little bit easier once you start there, but I would have to start with [those people].

BOND: Now, one picked out for special mention is Sister Mary Virgilius.

THOMAS: That’s right.

BOND: Tell me about her.

THOMAS: She is still alive. She is in her mid-nineties. She is an Irish immigrant. She went in the convent in 1931. She was originally, as far our diocese was concerned, she was at Augustan at Immaculate Conception and then she came to Savannah. Remember, those — Immaculate Conception and St. Benedict’s in Savannah have been orphanages and they eventually got rid of the orphanages and became grammar schools. But she was unyielding in her attitude that you would do well. It was consistent with my grandfather’s attitude because — I mean, as a kid, I’m twelve, thirteen years old. I want to do what twelve- and thirteen-year-olds do. I want to have fun and my grandfather’s view, and hers, was that we did not have the luxury in the ‘50s to have fun, that we had an obligation to perform and to do well.

BOND: And a moment ago you mentioned neighbors. What about neighbors? What did neighbors do you for you?

THOMAS: That’s a really good question. It’s fascinating. Nobody’s ever asked me that. What they do is they reinforce. The people around you reinforce. I think, for example, if you’re learning piano or an instrument or sports, it’s called take repetitions, repeating it over and over and over and over. Well, neighbors tended to reinforce what you were getting at home, what you were getting at school, what you were getting at your church, the positive things, what you got at the Carnegie Library in Savannah. It was all the same message. And so my cousin Hattie or Miss Mariah or Miss Beck, Miss Gertrude, Miss Gladys next door — it was all the same message.

BOND: Are these people sort of like surrogate parents? I mean, in addition to your grandmother and grandfather, they’re helping reinforce what they’re telling you?

THOMAS: Yes, it’s all — it was consistent. They were my neighbors and, you know, and in the South, of course, when anybody could tell you what to do. You know, anybody could tell you to go to the store to buy some snuff, some Honey Bee Snuff or whatever they wanted at the time, some Stanback or some Anacin that they took quite frequently, but the — and then they could — I remember one day, I was on East Broad and Henry Street just down a few blocks from our house, and we were cautioned never to cross the street against the light. And, of course, I’m a kid, so we crossed against the light, you know, there was no traffic so we ran across, and out of the back window of the bus, you heard this voice — “I’m going to tell Teenie on you.” That was the worst voice ever to hear. That was Miss Gertrude. And before we got home — I don’t know how she got the message to my grandmother — but before we got home, she’d informed her that we’d crossed the street against the light whereupon we were informed that "Your granddaddy will deal with you when he comes home." And that was — or he said, "Your daddy will — Daddy’ll deal with you when you get home." And that’s the worst threat you could ever have.

BOND: Do these people feel free to discipline as you as well?

THOMAS: Oh, yeah.

BOND: If they couldn’t wait for Daddy?

THOMAS: They didn’t even have the need because they could — they knew the fear of my grandfather was more than enough to discipline us, but if they had to, yes, and then we would get a second one from my grandfather.

BOND: Oh, boy.