There were 293,005 black Americans with Thomas as their last name in the 2010 U.S. Census. This was 39% of the total number with that name in the country.
This article looks at:
- 19th and early 20th-century black census numbers for the name
- notable African American people named Thomas
- early black military records and how to find them
Thomas Before The Civil War
The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.
In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. It was left blank to denote white, b for black, or m for mulatto. The third term is the language of the time. I will use mixed in the rest of this article.
If you are researching your black Thomas ancestors in census archives, be sure to search under both categories. Do not rely on the census taker’s judgment being correct.
1850 Federal Census
There were 2,536 people named Thomas who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 820 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, these are free citizens.
There was a total of 53,054 free citizens named Thomas that year.
1860 Federal Census
The 1860 federal census recorded 2,628 people named Thomas as black, and 959 as mixed.
That is out of a total of 65,921 free citizens.
Of course, census-taking would change after the Civil War.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. At last, all African Americans are included.
Those who were omitted in 1860 because they were enslaved are now in this census. Here are the numbers.
27,895 people named Thomas were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 3,874 as mixed.
The increase is clear. The overall total (all Americans) was 113,090.
The 1880 census recorded 40,877 as black and 6,274 as mixed out of a total of 146,410.
Now we jump to the end of the 19th century – or the beginning of the 20th.
Thomas In The 1900 And 1940 Census
In 1900, the mixed category was dropped. However, not all enumerators followed those instructions. I have found a small number of records where “m” was still used in the box for color.
I will focus here on the black numbers.
The 1900 census recorded 70,724 people named Thomas as black within a total of 215,937.
There were 110,881 people named Thomas recorded in the 1940 census as black within a total of 373,176.
Historic Black Figures
Here are some notable people from history with Thomas as their last name.
- Born: 1817
- From: Oxford, Maryland
Thomas Thomas purchased his freedom in Maryland and settled in Springfield, Massachusetts in the early 1840s.
He found work with John Brown, the abolitionist, and joined the abolitionist cause.
Thomas opened a restaurant in Springfield and sheltered runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was a vast network of secret routes and safe houses organized by many abolitionists and rights activists. It helped thousands of enslaved people escape from the South.
John W.E. Thomas
- Born: 1847
- Died: 1899
- From: Montgomery, Alabama
John W.E. Thomas risked imprisonment by teaching fellow slaves to read and write during the Civil War.
He moved to Chicago after the war and opened a grocery store and a school.
A strong activist in the city, he became the first black representative in the Illinois General Assembly. Thomas steered anti-discrimination laws through the assembly in 1885.
Other pioneering black legislators
Here are just some of the early African American legislators elected to House and Senate positions.
- Born: 1854
- Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
- Died: 1917
Lillian Parker’s mother was a teacher, and her father was a pastor. They encouraged her education during her early life in Wisconsin.
She married William James when she was eighteen and had one daughter. She married her second husband, Charles Thomas, in 1881. Like her first marriage, this didn’t last – although she kept the name. Her only daughter died in the same year of her divorce in 1889. Her third marriage was to James Fox, which was also short-lived.
From this point, Lillian became a prominent African American figure. She wrote for the Indianapolis Freeman, a black newspaper that appointed her as an assistant editor in 1891.
She was hired by the Indianapolis News in 1900 and had a weekly column that ran for fifteen years. She was the first black columnist in a white newspaper in Indiana.
Lillian was an active public speaker and used her position to promote public health for African Americans. She founded the Woman’s Improvement Club in Indianapolis with Beulah Wright Porter. The group was notable for treating black TB sufferers who were excluded from the City Hospital.
- Born: 1942
- Birthplace: Little Rock, Arkansas
- Died: 2010
Jefferson Thomas grew up in Little Rock where he attended the segregated black Horace Mann High School. At the time, the local branch of the NAACP, under the leadership of Daisy Bates, was forming a small group of black students to be the first to desegregate a Little Rock school.
Jefferson was one of nine students who volunteered to enroll at the white Little Rock Central High in 1957. This group became known as the Little Rock Nine.
On the first day, the Governor sent the National Guard to prevent their entry. President Eisenhower intervened and sent troops to enforce the court order of desegregation.
On the second day, the children also faced hostile crowds who gathered outside the school. They entered class and became the first students to integrate Little Rock Central High.
Jefferson went on to join the army and he served during the Vietnam War. He became a civil servant and gave frequent talks at schools and colleges about civil rights.
Members of the Little Rock Nine
Here are some of the members:
Thomas In Black Military Records
You may be surprised at the amount of genealogy information available from military records.
Here are some examples of the Thomas surname from three different military services:
- Buffalo soldiers
- Black civil war sailors
- Tuskegee airmen
Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.
Here are black soldiers of the 25th Infantry. Some are wearing buffalo robes.
One of the earliest entries for Thomas was in 1867.
Willie Thomas was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in 1867 at Fort Arbuckle, Oklahoma.
One of the last entries was in 1914. Richard Thomas was a Sergeant in the Ninth Cavalry that year.
Black Civil War Sailors
The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.
The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.
You can search the database on the National Parks website.
One of the earliest entries for the surname concerned Isaiah Thomas from Baltimore, Maryland. He enlisted in 1861 aged 21.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Waiter. His naval rank was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted in 1864. John was aged 31 and was from Providence, Rhode Island.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Steward. His naval rank was Ordinary Seaman.
An ordinary seaman in the Navy is an apprentice who serves on the deck.
The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.
Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
Daniel Thomas graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant from the Tuskegee Institute in 1943. He qualified as a liaison pilot. Daniel was from Washington City, Philadelphia.
William Thomas came from Los Angeles, California. He trained as a fighter pilot and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1943.
His combat credits said:
Downed 1 Fw-190 on August 24, 1944
This means that he shot down an enemy aircraft on that day.