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Black History Month: Honoring Jesse O. Thomas

Historical portrait of Jesse O. Thomas.

This Black History Month, we’re honoring Black men and women whose contributions were essential to our history. Meet Jesse O. Thomas, an educator who paved the way for the future of African Americans working for and with the Red Cross.

Born on Dec. 21, 1885, in Pike County, Mississippi., Jesse O. Thomas was a protégé of the well-known author and educator, Booker T. Washington. As an undergraduate at Tuskegee Institute, Thomas not only captured Washington’s attention but also the attention of board member Julius Rosenwald and President Theodore Roosevelt. His remarkable public speaking abilities led to him being hired at the Institute after he graduated in 1911. In 1918, Thomas accepted the position of State Supervisor of Negro Economics as well as the Examiner-in-Charge of the U.S. Employment Service. The next year, he resigned from both of his positions so he could further his education and pursue a degree in social work at the New York School of Social Work.

In Oct. 1919, Thomas opened the Field Secretary Office of the National Urban League in Atlanta and became the first person of color to work in an exclusively white organization. His work within the National Urban League led to the betterment of social work within that region. Thomas and his wife also opened their home to African Americans, such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. Du Bois, due to the lack of suitable hotel accommodations for the African-American community.

During World War II, Thomas took a step back from the National Urban League to focus on the sale of war bonds in the African-American community.

Seeing his success with the National Urban League, Thomas was recruited to work with the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., in 1943. It was during this time that he became the first African American to be hired at the organization. In his role, Thomas led the racial integration of the organization. Thomas retired from the Red Cross ten years later in 1953. Due to the efficient and proactive communication carried out by Thomas for his superiors and the Black community, Thomas paved the way for African Americans to work at the Red Cross. In 1969, Thomas moved to California to be closer to his daughter, where he lived out the rest of his days in Sacramento.

Thank you, Jesse O. Thomas, for your important work to further the Red Cross mission.