Clarence Thomas: A Biography

Clarence Thomas: A Biography

by Andrew Peyton Thomas

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In this unauthorized biography, the most authoritative ever written about the controversial Supreme Court Justice, Andrew Peyton Thomas (no relation) explores Clarence Thomas' remarkable rise from a childhood of poverty in segregated Georgia to the nation's highest court. In his attempt to understand what drives the elusive and sometimes enigmatic Justice, the

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In this unauthorized biography, the most authoritative ever written about the controversial Supreme Court Justice, Andrew Peyton Thomas (no relation) explores Clarence Thomas' remarkable rise from a childhood of poverty in segregated Georgia to the nation's highest court. In his attempt to understand what drives the elusive and sometimes enigmatic Justice, the author located and conducted the first-ever interview with Clarence Thomas' father, as well as interviews with his mother, sister, and other relatives and friends.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Thomas (no relation to his subject), a sympathetic conservative author (Crime and the Sacking of America), delivers a biography curiously at odds with itself. The first two chapters, covering several centuries of local and family history, follow Clarence Thomas's self-mythologizing strategy whereby he portrayed himself as a black Horatio Alger from the segregated South when he was undergoing scrutiny as a Supreme Court nominee. Though lacking rich detail, the account of the justice's early life is engaging. Justice Thomas's grandfather's grinding work-ethic response to racism sowed the seeds of deeply enduring conflicts that neither Thomas nor this biographer appear to have examined. At Yale Law School (one of several affirmative action boons Thomas both exploited and resented, as this volume affirms), he eschewed theoretical studies for commercial law. After clerking at a civil rights law firm, he unsuccessfully sought work elsewhere before becoming a diversity hire of Missouri Attorney General John Danforth. Reagan's need for black conservatives to reverse the civil rights agenda gained Thomas two successive plum assignments the last as head of the EEOC before Bush appointed him first to the D.C. Court of Appeals, then to the Supreme Court. His special, fast-track treatment and apparent lack of preparation for this post are made painfully evident here. The author acknowledges the justice's evident periodic dishonesty and deep self-pity, citing the "dark side" of Thomas's political abilities as "a disingenuousness that sometimes seeped into dishonesty." Anita Hill and every liberal in sight are dutifully trashed, and major substantive criticisms of Thomas are ignored. Though the author(a graduate of Harvard Law School who has written for the Weekly Standard and the National Review) offers exaggerated outbursts of praise (for a man who "[put] his head down and charg[ed] through life as an independent moral agent... a free man"), he portrays a spoiled, bitter, insincere man. Photos not seen by PW. (For another take on Thomas, see Silent Justice, by John Greenya, reviewed on p.82) (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Chapter One

Two Plantations in Georgia

"To understand," Frederick Douglass said, "a man must stand under." Only by considering all the hardships a man has overcome in life, Douglass believed, can the rest of us judge him fairly. So it must be with Clarence Thomas. To understand how Thomas became one of the great intellectual and political rebels in American history, one must recall, in the context of his life, the unique evils that he and his fellow black Americans surmounted with such great struggle.

    Thomas himself would eschew such an approach, but not for lack of respect for Frederick Douglass. Thomas often quotes Douglass, and a black-and-white portrait of the grizzled great man today peers over his shoulder from behind his desk in his Supreme Court chambers. Rather, Thomas, proudly independent to the point of vice, simply brooks no assessment of his life based on anything other than his own achievements. This policy is unduly modest, both toward himself and toward others of his race. Thomas's story cannot be fully comprehended, or his accomplishments given their full measure, without consideration of the broader history of racial injustice that forms the backdrop of his life and work.

    "We Afro-Americans are like hunters on the trail of truth," Thomas once observed. "The prey we stalk is: Who we are, What we have been, What we will become as individuals and as a people." The dearth of recorded black family history is a large impediment to this historical quest. One of the great enduring offenses of American slave owners was their policy of forbidding slaves to chronicle their lineage—even while they and other white Southerners became famously obsessed with documenting every last twig of their own family trees. This crime against history robbed black Americans of the firm ancestral ties crucial for a fuller sense of continuity and tradition. Subsequent poor record keeping by Southern bureaucrats compounded this wrong.

    And yet the trail of truth in Clarence Thomas's origins is discernible, and it leads unerringly through the heart of Georgia. His family story is but a tiny stitch or two in the tapestry of that state's history, but it provides the essential backdrop of Thomas's life. It also offers a reminder that Clarence Thomas's remarkable ascent in American government is not merely a tale of self-advancement, but a chapter in the continuing triumph of the African-American people, without whose sacrifices and sustenance Thomas would not be where he is today.

* * *

Clarence Thomas is a descendant of the African-American slaves emancipated from the Thomas plantation in Laurens County, Georgia, and from the King plantation in Liberty County, Georgia. His genealogy intertwines with the most sinister aspects of the nation's early history, a time when men could own other men and, ultimately, one-half of the nation made war on the other to bring this institution to a flaming end. Thomas's family bore the additional and great misfortune of living in Georgia, arguably the most racially oppressive corner of the entire slavocracy.

    The black folk of Georgia resisted their fate with energy and ingenuity. W. E. B. Du Bois, the greatest of African-American scholars, noted this spirit when he wrote that Georgia was home to "a mass of peculiarly self-reliant black folk." Their stubborn assertiveness spilled over into the larger spectacle of American history, as the great black leaders born and nurtured in Georgia successfully championed the cause of all African-Americans.

    Founded in 1732, Georgia was the only English colony in America that prohibited slavery from its inception. By 1750, however, so many slaves had been smuggled into Georgia that the colonial government finally bowed to popular will and repealed the ban. The government also, for good measure, clamped on a tough slave code modeled after that of South Carolina, where a slave revolt in 1739 triggered draconian criminal punishments and travel restrictions on its already shackled black residents.

    Thomas's ancestors almost certainly came from the Atlantic shores of West Africa. The slaves at the King plantation, an estate built on rice production where his mother's ancestors lived, were overwhelmingly from this region, where the confluence of the sea and several West African rivers made the native people experts at cultivating rice. Amid the babble of tongues and kaleidoscope of customs and faiths transplanted to the Georgia coast, there was a common, ardent desire to recover the freedom many of them had only recently lost.

    Some of the newly enslaved Africans resorted to the most direct expedient: suicide. One group of Ibos fresh from present-day Nigeria were delivered to St. Simons Island, some thirty miles from the King plantation, around the turn of the nineteenth century, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, the chief of the tribe solemnly led his people into Dunbar Creek, where they drowned themselves. The point is now called Ibo Landing; local legend holds that it is haunted.

    Many slaves escaped and ran away from Georgia, and then garrisoned themselves against their erstwhile owners. In 1681, black runaway slaves from South Carolina and English settlements in what later became the Georgia colony established Fort Mose, an outpost two miles north of St. Augustine, Florida. There they took up life among the native American Indians and at one point mustered a militia that fought off James Oglethorpe's English soldiers from Georgia. Other such "maroon" communities (from the Spanish word cimarron, meaning unruly) sprang up in the area. The ex-slaves in these societies subsisted on wild game and whatever they could grab in their raids on white villages.

    During the Revolutionary War, Georgia's white leaders understandably were leery of providing arms to such a restive population. By the end of the conflict, Georgia and neighboring South Carolina were the only two states that did not permit blacks to serve as soldiers. The British exploited this disparate treatment, particularly in the southern theater of the war. They welcomed slaves into their ranks and enticed them with promises of freedom for services rendered. When the British captured Savannah, Georgia, in 1778, a former slave guided them into the city and a large contingent of black soldiers, comprising some 10 percent of the total British force, helped them take it.

    Georgia's whites responded in kind. Between 1779 and 1788, the year after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Georgia was the only state that did not outlaw or suspend the slave trade. White landowners instigated hostilities against the Seminole Indians in Florida during the War of 1812 because of their refusal to return runaway slaves. Armed camps of former Georgia slaves conducted sorties out of northern Florida, killing whites and freeing slaves. From 1817 to 1818, between 400 and 600 runaway slaves joined the Seminoles in harassing Georgia plantations. Andrew Jackson grudgingly acknowledged their bravery and finally disengaged federal forces from the conflict, ending, for the time being, "this savage and Negro war."

    Such insurrectionary battles were at the margins of early nineteenth-century life, however. In 1819, the United States acquired Florida from Spain, and with overwhelming force, the U.S. military methodically cleared the land of Indians and their fugitive neighbors. Until the Civil War, Georgia remained a nightmarish destination for blacks. Frederick Douglass wrote that the selling of a slave "to the State of Georgia was a sore and mournful event to those left behind, as well as to the victims themselves."

* * *

The Thomas plantation, near the geographical center of the state, was a microcosm of slave life in Georgia. Located in northern Laurens County, this tract of land fell just south of the "Fall Line," the jagged ancient shoreline that runs more or less diagonally from southwest to northeast across the middle of the state. The land south of the Fall Line is an ancient mixture of sand and clay originally deposited by the Atlantic Ocean before it ebbed to its current contour. The soil that remains is largely a loam-covered red piedmont clay. The consistency and nutrients of the soil make it hospitable for a valued commodity: cotton.

    Part of the "plantation belt," the fertile crescent that sweeps down from Virginia south to Georgia and then edges west into east Texas, Laurens County offered pristine farmland to those early-nineteenth-century pioneers willing to fell and uproot enough trees to cultivate it. The brothers John and Peter Thomas arrived in the area around 1808 and claimed one of the county's richest bottomlands. Along the banks of Turkey Creek, amid a dense grove of cypress, birch and white oak trees, they built their first home and mill. Peter Thomas was one of the first five justices of the Laurens County Inferior Court, whose first term convened on April 25, 1808, in a small building next to the Thomas house.

    In 1849, the Thomas family sold the property, including its slaves, to one of the more colorful personalities in Georgia history: George Michael Troup. The antique Men of Mark in Georgia informs posterity, "In the bright constellation of names which have illuminated the history of Georgia, there is none which shines with more effulgence than that of George M. Troup." In language evocative of Parson Weems, Troup is described as someone who, even as a child, was "tenacious of his honor, decided in character, and of unsullied reputation," and "never engaged in a senseless prank or a mischievous act." As an adult, the Southern aristocrat studied at Princeton, practiced law in Savannah, and married a cousin of Robert E. Lee. He subsequently enjoyed a phenomenal political career, including, in order, stints as a congressman, senator and governor. In 1823, he was the last governor of Georgia elected by the legislature; in 1825, he became the first elected by the people. The 1823 election capped off a ferocious and deadly campaign between the factions loyal to Troup and Matthew Talbot, himself a disciple of a local political boss named John Clarke. When the ballots were read aloud in the legislature and the roar of shouts and weeping died down, a locally famous Methodist preacher broke the silence by exulting, "O Lord we thank thee. The State is redeemed from the rule of the devil and John Clarke."

    Troup was slender and of medium height. He walked with an erect military posture. His most distinctive physical features were his blazing red hair, sunken blue eyes, and a large, supple mouth which, a contemporary judge quipped, "nature had formed expressly to say `Yazoo.'" Troup was an eccentric. He dressed in a blue coat with brass buttons, a buff vest and a fur cap, and he often wore summer outfits in winter and vice versa. When he was sworn into office as governor, he showed up before the legislature on a frigid November day wearing spring apparel: a round jacket of cotton cloth, a black cassimere vest, yellow nankeen trousers, silk hose, dancing pumps and a large white hat.

    This odd bird, so haughty that he would not canvass for votes ("I have refused through life to electioneer and I am too old to do it now," he insisted during his gubernatorial campaign), was in one respect far ahead of his time. Advancing a theory of states' rights that would one day cleave the nation in two, Troup contended that all federal sovereignty flowed from the states. As governor, he threatened to take military action against the federal government when the administration of John Quincy Adams sided with Georgia's Indian tribes in a land dispute.

    Troup retired from public life in 1833 and devoted himself to the plantations he owned in and around Laurens County. In 1849, he purchased the Thomas plantation, an estate of approximately 1,900 acres stretching from Turkey Creek on its western border some three and a half miles to the east. Troup already owned 300 to 350 slaves on his Laurens County plantations. (One was Isaac Jackson, who claimed to be George Washingtons oldest surviving slave and who lived to be 112.) An estimated 200 slaves worked on the Thomas plantation.

    The house that Troup obtained as part of the Thomas real estate crowned a gently sloping hill and enjoyed a literally commanding view of the slaves toiling in the cotton fields below. The structure was a typical Piedmont Plains plantation house: a "two-on-two" design with a complementary pair of rooms on either side of the house, both upstairs and downstairs, connected by two corresponding large halls. Slaves constructed the foundation and chimney with bricks made of red clay scooped from the ground and dried in the sun. Clapboard siding of native wood, most likely pine or cypress, covered the exterior. From a broad front porch, the standard architectural welcome mat of the South, Troup could view and acknowledge passersby traveling to and from Thomas Crossroads, the name by which the nearby intersection of former Indian trails had become known.

    Troup traveled by wagon among his four plantations in the 1850s, as always an arresting sight. Decked out in his blue coat, its metal buttons reflecting sunrays as he passed over the rutted roads, Troup would tip his fur cap in friendly salute. He moved from plantation to plantation with a full entourage in tow, a caravan of wagons hauling slaves and household furnishings, horses and dogs neighing and barking along as part of the procession. Several states' rights parties, recognizing his early, prescient contributions to their cause, nominated him for president during the decade. He declined, citing failing health. George Michael Troup died in 1856 and was buried at Rosemont Plantation; his real estate and slaves passed to his daughter and grandchildren.

    The master race he had served so ably mourned him in proportion to his deeds. A county was named after him. So was one of the squares in Savannah. (Clarence Thomas, a descendant of Troup's slaves, would grow up in a home two miles away from the memorial.) The Georgia Assembly commissioned a life-size portrait, which today hangs in a prominent corner of the Assembly's outer halls. Troup's visage is catty-corner to a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., about one-quarter its size.

* * *

W. E. B. Du Bois judged Liberty County, some 120 miles from where the Troup-Thomas plantation stood, "by far the most interesting black county in Georgia." Fanny Kemble, a nineteenth-century British actress and critic of slavery who married one of Georgia's wealthiest planters, chortled that given the slavery so prevalent there, the name "Liberty County" must be a "satirical title." The popularity of slavery in the county was not for lack of religious enlightenment. Liberty County had been founded in the 1750s by Puritans who were an offshoot of the hardy band that sailed from England and founded Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1630. This group hopscotched down the Atlantic coast to establish Dorchester, South Carolina, in 1695, and Liberty County in the following century.

    Wherever these Puritans came ashore, a local flowering of economic success was not slow in coming. These settlers were both a testament and a traveling road troupe for Max Weber's thesis on the Calvinist work ethic; their belief in thrift, private property, and the moral dignity of labor both condoned and increased wealth. Liberty County was one of the greatest showcases of these values. Out of a swampy terrain far more hospitable to mosquitoes and water moccasins than to men, these brave souls fashioned a miniature civilization envied throughout the South—a Plymouth Rock with slaves. Robert Manson Myers described this extraordinary elite in The Children of Pride as "sober, pious, God-fearing Calvinists.... No planting community could boast deeper religious convictions, higher intellectual cultivation, gentler social refinement, or greater material wealth."

    Yet these devout Christians were forced to reconcile their faith with the profits drawn from a deeply sinful institution. They tried to thread this needle by becoming the most tolerant of slave owners and the most committed to teaching their human property the basics of Christianity. By 1770, whites had established a broad program for the religious education of the slaves in Liberty County. Charles Colcock Jones, who became known as the "Apostle to the Blacks," rode a circuit of some fifty plantations, preaching to the slaves after their daily labors had ended. Jones wrote a Catechism of Scripture Doctrine and Practice, taught in family and plantation schools in his absence. When the State of Georgia ordered these schools closed, the Puritans of Georgia ensured that their slaves received the same instruction in Sunday schools. Jones concluded that through these efforts, "Personal responsibility, freely admitted, engendered mutual respect and a most commendable degree of manliness" among the county's black residents.

    Work reinforced this emphasis on individual responsibility. Slaves in Liberty County were required to perform a daily "task," which usually meant working a piece of land. After they finished this assignment, the rest of the day was theirs. They could hire themselves out to other planters or artisans, grow vegetables on plots of land next to their quarters, or engage in other commercial pursuits; and they were allowed to keep all or a substantial portion of what they earned from these entrepreneurial labors. In addition to making their existence less dreary, this practice offered slaves a personal incentive to work efficiently. Some were able to save enough money to buy their own land; and thanks to the toleration born of a guilty conscience, whites agreed to sell it to them. This policy of land ownership for slaves was incomprehensible and, indeed, anathema elsewhere in the South.

    Liberty County "was not Tara," as one local historian hastened to note. Hard toil six days a week gave way to a ten-or-more-mile wagon ride on Sundays to the Midway Church, where services were a twelve-hour experience. Balls and other frivolities were rare, but the dividends of clean living were undeniable. Liberty County became one of the wealthiest rural communities in the antebellum South. In the decades after its founding, the little tidewater county produced many nationally recognized leaders of government, religion, education and science. Throughout Georgia and the South, it was said with admiration that the planter class of Liberty County "feared only malaria and a decline in the price of rice and sea-island cotton."

    Sitting at the pinnacle of this privileged caste was the King family. Of approximately a hundred plantations along the Liberty County coast in 1851, only six were larger than a thousand acres. One of these belonged to Roswell King Jr., whose wife, Julia, hailed from another prominent Liberty County clan, the Maxwell family. The King plantation covered much of Colonel's Island. The so-called island—it is really a saw-toothed peninsula—had been a Creek Indian settlement. Its name derived from the large number of colonels who subsequently resided there. A secondary barrier island nestled behind the much larger St. Catherines Island, which faces the sea and absorbs most of its force, Colonel's Island and its sandy bluffs jut into the coastal waterway that flows between the two islands and enables easy navigation along the coast.

    The King plantation was part of Liberty County's rice empire. At Colonel's Island, swampland and bogs from the mainland merged with the alluvium of the low, flat peninsulas to form a prime area for growing rice. The Kings and neighboring planters bought or imported slaves with expertise in this specialized craft. To avoid contracting malaria, to which African blacks (conveniently enough) were genetically more resistant than whites, the local rice aristocracy entrusted the cultivation of this crop to the slaves while retreating to higher ground in the summer.

    The King plantation house was a sizable two-story edifice constructed from the remains of a wrecked British ship that washed ashore nearby. The inventive Puritans put the flotsam to good use, making an ample veranda on the second floor directly above double front doors and an oversized front porch bracketing the ground floor. Plain white pillars supported the second story, and dark shutters for the windows lent the home a simple symmetry. By design, live oaks laden with Spanish moss partially obstructed the front view of the house.

    In addition to tending to their holdings on Colonel's Island and nearby, the Kings supervised the massive estates of Pierce Butler in Glynn County. With over fifteen hundred acres and more than eight hundred slaves, Butler's plantations were one of the largest plantation systems in the nation. It was Butler who married Fanny Kemble in 1836 and brought her back home to nearby Darien, Georgia, where she tried to trade acting for a literary career by recording in her eloquent journal the atrocities of slavery and the paradoxical natural beauty of her new land.

    It is to the feisty Kemble that posterity owes a fuller account of Roswell King. It was common knowledge, she wrote, that King had impregnated a Butler slave named Betty, wife of a fellow slave named Frank, the plantation's head driver. The son she bore resembled King, who kept her as a concubine.

    Had this been widely known in Liberty County, King likely would have been ostracized. The same Puritan values that engendered wealth so predictably a/so publicly disdained the interracial congress that was one of the unacknowledged dividends of slave ownership elsewhere in the South. One Liberty County slave recounted that of 125 slaves at his Liberty County plantation, there "was but one mulatto." Antebellum census records speak of very few residents of mixed race. Du Bois similarly noted that in Liberty County, slaves' "family life was carefully protected," with the result that "mulattoes are rare in the county." Clarence Thomas one day would be teased mercilessly by his fellow black schoolchildren for the darkness of his skin. This pigmentation was, in fact, a backhanded compliment to the morals of the Liberty County Puritans.

    The oldest known lineal ancestor of Clarence Thomas was a slave belonging to Roswell King. His name has been lost to history, but in the family's oral history he is remembered for one thing. "He was double-jointed," recalled Blanche Lambert, a relative of Thomas who was born in Liberty County in 1903. The family history suggests that his flexibility somehow rendered ineffective the traditional modes of corporal punishment employed against slaves. Because of this condition, his owners "couldn't rule him." As a result, Lambert said, this man was eventually sold to another plantation.

Excerpted from CLARENCE THOMAS by Andrew Peyton Thomas. Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Peyton Thomas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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