AMHERSTBURG FREEEDOM MUSEUM
“Among the early settlers of Amherstburg” – The Thomas Family – Part 1
This month we will be connecting the dots in the Thomas family tree, beginning with Maria/Mariah Buckner and George Thomas. George was born in Covington, Kentucky in 1843, while there are several possibilities for where Maria was born: her son George Alexander’s death certificate lists her as being born in Evansville, Indiana, and her marriage record states that she was born in Kentucky, while her obituary in the Amherstburg Echo states that she was born in Malden and lived there her whole life, except for the few years that she lived in Battle Creek, Michigan, following the passage of her husband, George in May 1922. Her obituary also states that she had three brothers: William, Elliott and David Buckner. According to George and Maria’s marriage record from the Wesleyan Methodist Church, George and Maria were married on July 25, 1861. George’s father’s name is not mentioned in this record, but his mother’s name was Clarissa Thomas. Maria’s parents were Berrel and Eliza Buckner. In a booklet describing the Fifteenth Annual Thomas Family Reunion, it states that “Members of our family have achieved prominence in many fields of endeavor and we are scattered through twelve states in the U.S.A. and the Province of Ontario, Canada … We are a family traditionally motivated to the highest ideas of Christian living and citizenship, and wherever we live, members of the family have played and continue to assume leading roles in the religious, civic, and political life of their communities.” This booklet also says that “George and Mariah Thomas were among the early settlers of Amherstburg, Ontario and were the parents of four sons and one daughter – indeed, a lovely family.” These five children were George Alexander, Philip, Daniel, Robert W. and Mary Almede.
George Alexander Thomas was born in Amherstburg on May 28, 1864 and is listed as a cook in his 1945 death certificate and an Affidavit for License to Marry. He retired in 1935. George Alexander married Frances Jones on December 21, 1896 in Detroit, Michigan, although he is listed under his middle name, “Alexander.” His death certificate also lists a second marriage to Lydia Lott. George Alexander and Lydia had several children: Juanita Vivian, Robert S., George Leslie, Lydia Opal and Harry N. Juanita Vivian was born on January 6, 1899, and later married Charles W. Mason, a chauffeur and son of Charles E. Mason and Florence Smith, in 1938 in Cuyahoga, Ohio. Robert S. was born on September 30, 1901 and later married a woman named Dorothea. George Leslie was born on October 1, 1903, and in September 1925, married Helen M. Anderson, who was born in Jacksonville, Florida and was the daughter of Henry and Maude (Smith) Anderson. In their marriage record, George Leslie is also listed as a musician. Lydia Opal who was born on March 27, 1906, sadly died on March 3, 1940. Her death certificate states that she was a “recreation teacher” and the wife of Harold Gaines. Finally, Harry N. was born on May 17, 1908 in Lorain, Ohio, and according to his death certificate he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He also married a woman named Anne. Stay tuned for next week.
“Among the early settlers of Amherstburg” – The Thomas Family – Part 2
George and Maria’s second son, Philip Thomas, married Beatrice Lillian Crawford on April 4, 1894. Beatrice was born in Amherstburg on July 28, 1872 and was the daughter of George M. and Laura J. Crawford, who were mentioned in last month’s Alexander family essay, while discussing Annie (Crawford) Alexander. It was mentioned that Annie and Beatrice’s father George was “of Cherokee Indian descent and came north from the Southern States when a young man. He was a master carpenter and many of the houses he built in Amherstburg of timbers and lumber that had to be hewn and dressed in the bush are still standing as proof of their sturdy construction. The First Baptist Church is one of them.” Beatrice’s mother Laura escaped enslavement in Covington, Kentucky at the age of 15 and journeyed via the Underground Railroad through Oberlin, Ohio and found freedom in Amherstburg. It was in Amherstburg that George and Laura met and married. In an article discussing Beatrice, it mentions that her mother Laura’s escape is documented in the book, “Reminiscences of Levi Coffin,” but she may have used a different name or was nameless because, upon review, there is no Laura mentioned in the book. Beatrice was an active member of Mount Zion Baptist Church since her arrival at Oberlin, Ohio in 1912. In a write-up discussing her life, it was said that “The main interest of Mrs. Thomas in life besides her family, was church work; her devoted husband and children are thankful for her unfailing trust in God and her sublime faith in the Christian way of life.” This quote is very accurate considering she was involved with most of the church’s organizations including the Senior Choir, Missionary Society, Sunday School and BYPU, which may have stood for Baptist Young Peoples Union. She also served as a deaconess for 25 years and after her failing health no longer allowed her to be active in this work; she was made an honorary deaconess. Outside of the church she was involved in several other organizations, including the Martha Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, a member of the Women’s Progressive Club and a Girl Scout leader. Beatrice and Philip had seven children: Thelma, who married a labourer, Rollin Clyde Godette, the son of Henry Godette and Etta Fields, in February 1928; Annie married a teacher, William Frederick Hardgraves, the son of Hammond Arthur Hardgraves and Anna Dere Langford, in June 1930; Linny (Leach); Philip M. (m. Betty); Wilbur C. (m. Marie); Gladys (Wallace) and Mary who married Clinton Ward. Philip and Beatrice also had a daughter named Beatrice Virginia, but she sadly died in infancy.
Interestingly, Mary Ward was a celebrated resident of Lorain, Ohio, and was described as “one of the ‘richest women of the locality in friendship and respect.’” She gave her time and talent to both civic and humanitarian causes, and on March 2, 1971 the community honoured and thanked her with a civic testimonial dinner that had 250 people in attendance. Sadly, Mary passed away the next day at the age of 68. She had two children: Clinton Jr. and Marion (m. John Marshall). There’s still more to come. See you next week.
“Among the early settlers of Amherstburg” – The Thomas Family – Part 3
George and Maria’s third son, Daniel Wallace Thomas was a mariner and on December 27, 1893 in Amherstburg, he married Anna Permelia Stevens, the daughter of M.J. and Mary Stevens. According to the 1910 Census they had three children: Viola (or Viva), Granville and Burrel/Burl. Graville was born on December 6, 1895, while Viola (or Viva) was born the year before on December 27, 1894, and later worked as a housewife and married Edwin Gray Cowan. Daniel and Anna’s third child, Burrel (Burl) Buckner Thomas, was born on January 18, 1898 and later married Helen L. Divelle, who was born in South Carolina and the daughter of George Divelle and a mother with the last name Cummings. They married on June 27, 1923 in Detroit, Michigan. By 1920, the census for Ashtabula, Ohio, states that Daniel was no longer a mariner, but now a machinist in a factory. It also lists Granville and Burl still living at home at this point (before their marriages) and the census lists Granville working as an “oiler” at a steel mill, while Burl worked as a chauffeur for a private family. Interestingly, in the 1910 Census, the Thomas family is listed as “white,” but in the next Census for 1920, they are listed as “mulatto.” It is certainly possible that the census taker assumed that the family was white if they had a lighter complexion or the family may have passed for white during that time considering the racial climate.
George and Maria’s fourth son was Robert W. Thomas and he was a cook. On December 20, 1901, he married Lulu Adams in Amherstburg at the age of 22; Lulu was 23 and her parents are listed as William Adams and Laura Holton. Lulu was also active in the community, joining several organizations in Amherstburg. As a young girl, she was a member of the Buisy [sic] Glenors which was an educational group for young people. She was also a member of the Frederic [sic] Douglass Self-Improvement Club, which focused on education and etiquette, in addition to joining the Oxford Club which hosted socials and other entertainment at the A.M.E. Church. Robert and Lulu had three daughters and one son: Roberta, who married a musician, Harold W. Coleman (son of Stephen and Mamie Duger Coleman), in July 1926; Fern (Georges); Lola, who married Elmer Hamlin and on the 1940 census for Lorain, Ohio, is listed as a maid at Oberlin College. Their last child, Orville was born on February 2, 1911 and is listed as an undertaker’s assistant in the 1940 Ohio census and he married a woman named Ethel. See you next week for another installment of the Thomas Family History.
“Among the early settlers of Amherstburg” – The Thomas Family- Part 4
George and Maria’s only daughter was Mary Almede Thomas who was born in November 1863 in Anderdon Township and lived there for 75 years. She married twice: first to George Douglas McCurdy, son of Nasa McCurdy and Permelia Bailey, in 1884 and then to Fred H.A. Davis, son of Nancy Jane Mitchell and Delos Davis, in April 1913. Mary was a member of the BME Church in Amherstburg and the Ruth Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. She had two sons named Leroy McCurdy of White Plains, New York (b. December 12, 1885 and m. Evelyn Foster) and George D. McCurdy (b. September 7, 1890) of Amherstburg who married Laura Adams, the daughter of William H. Adams and Laura Holten, in December 1910. Mary also had a daughter, Mabel Edith, who was born on March 24, 1888. Mabel married Jerome Simpson in June 1905 in Amherstburg and they were the parents of Melvin Mac Simpson, who founded the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, formerly the North American Black Historical Museum, with his wife Betty. Jerome and Mabel had several children in addition to Melvin, including Dorothy (b. August 19, 1905 and m. John Dwelle); Wilfred (b. November 27, 1906 and m. Odessa Campbell); Everett (b. January 26, 1910 and m. Dorothy Williams); Corinne (b. February 12, 1912 and m. Vincent Bryant); Sheldon, and Kathleen (b. May 10, 1914) who married Burton H. Clemens, an electrical engineer from California and the son of Isaiah Clemens, on June 10, 1948. At the ceremony, Kathleen’s brother, Melvin, sang the song “Because” and Kathleen wore a pastel pink silk jersey gown. Her veil had pink rosebuds on it and she also wore a corsage with pink tea roses. Kathleen and Burton married under a white canopy with ferns and roses in the background. Stay tuned for next week!
“Among the early settlers of Amherstburg” – The Thomas Family – Part 5
Interestingly, it is through Mabel McCurdy Simpson that we find a connection to one of Windsor’s most celebrated basketball players, Fred Thomas. Mabel’s husband Jerome is the son of Matilda Brooks (born c. 1840 in Colchester North to Edmund and Susan Brooks) and James Simpson (born in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio and came to Amherstburg in 1855), who is Fred’s great uncle. James’ sister Mahala Simpson was married to George Thomas (a different George Thomas than discussed above) and they were Fred’s grandparents. Fred was the son of Charles Fred Thomas and Edith Mae Jones (daughter of Fred and Jane), who were residents of Windsor, where Charles worked for the City of Windsor for 40 years before retiring. In addition to Fred, they had five daughters and another son: Helen, Freida, Dorothy, Edith, Hazel and George. Of their children, Fred is the most well-known. Born in Windsor on 26 December 1923, Fred was a fifth generation Canadian who could trace his history back to both freedom seekers in North Carolina and immigrants from Barbados. Fred Thomas became known as “one of Canada’s finest ever basketball players,” and was able to deliver the perfect hook shot with either hand. Fred attended Patterson Collegiate, playing a big role in the school winning the All-Ontario Basketball championship during his senior year. Following graduation, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a pilot in 1943, earning his wings and serving until 1945. It was then that he enrolled at Assumption College. He first played for Assumption College and is responsible for leading them to the Canadian Senior Men’s Finals in 1949. In fact, during the 1948-49 season, he set a record by scoring 639 points in a single season. Thomas also scored 2,059 points throughout his four-year basketball career at Assumption and remains the only player to score 2,000 points for Assumption or the University of Windsor. On February 23, 1945, Fred led Assumption to a victory over the Harlem Globetrotters with a score of 49-45, which must have impressed the Globetrotter organization because they invited him to join their organization. Following his time with Assumption, Thomas played professional basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters for two seasons and, later, played for the Toronto Tri-Bells. His biggest disappointment was not being chosen for Canada’s Olympic basketball team in 1952 but, over and over again, Thomas proved himself to be a multi-talented athlete, expanding into baseball and football. Thomas became the first Black player to compete in the professional Eastern League (baseball). Not only did he make his debut on July 4, 1948 for the Wilkes-Barre Barons, which was a minor-league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, he also played for the Kitchener Panthers, where he was the League Batting Champion with an average of .383. If that was not enough, Thomas also had a brief career as a football player with the Toronto Argonauts in 1949, but a knee injury ended his football career. Fred Thomas was such a well-rounded athlete, who could achieve success in many sports. Among his numerous acknowledgements, Thomas was also inducted into the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame in 1981; the University of Windsor Alumni Sports Hall of Fame in 1986; the Afro-American Hall of Fame in 1994, and the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995. Following his sports career, Fred transferred his athletic skills to teaching where he became a physical education teacher in Toronto, where he taught for over 20 years. Fred Thomas passed away on May 20, 1981. Thank you for joining us for the Thomas Family History. Stay tuned for next month where we will feature another amazing family.