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Black History Spotlight: Althea Thomas

Althea Thomas in front of her exhibit at the National Museum of American History
Joie Gray/ Bert Thomas
Althea Thomas in front of her exhibit at the National Museum of American History

February is Black History Month. Today we spotlight an organist and educator from Montgomery who has her shoes in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Organists wear specific shoes to work the pedals of the instrument. She modified a pair of tap shoes to fit that need. She used those shoes for years to play for someone who helped change the course of American history.

Althea Thomas grew up in the days of segregation. She can remember several moments of inequality from having to sit on the back seats of the bus to separate water fountains at Montgomery’s Kress Department Store...

“I was about maybe 12 or 13. I went in Kress and I drank from the white fountain. You know, they had a thing that was just water for black folks labelled colored, but I drank some water from the white fountain. This lady who worked in there… ‘Girl, that’s…you drinking that white water.’ I said water isn’t white. Milk is white. Water is clear. ‘Well, you need to just get out of here before you get in trouble’ and I said to myself, well, one thing she said was true. Trouble is coming!”

Althea Thomas with her son Bert Thomas and musician Dave Grohl at an event at the National Museum of American History
Joie Gray
Althea Thomas with her son Bert Thomas and musician Dave Grohl at an event at the National Museum of American History

Of course, what followed was the civil rights movement and Althea Thomas had a front row seat. In fact, her seat was closer than the front row. Her seat at the organ sat directly between the window and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr as organist for Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.

"The organ is between the pastor and the window. If those folks had taken that the wrong kind of way and shot through the window, who's in the line of fire?" she asked.

Thomas was Dr. King’s organist at Dexter from 1955 to 1959. She earned degrees from Alabama State University in both music and art. Most of the people in the higher positions at Dexter were connected to Alabama State and the university’s vice president was the choral director. He knew Thomas well and recommended her to Dr. King when he was looking for an organist. Thomas remembers when King called her house about the position.

“He said, ‘This is Martin King…’ Who is Martin King? The name Martin Luther King sounds more familiar. It was more familiar," Thomas recalled. "I knew who Martin Luther King was, I had heard he's the new man at Dexter.”

Thomas also remembers the brilliance of Dr. King’s sermons:

“He was so spontaneous. He could stand up and look and see something and there was a brand-new subject for a sermon,” she said.

She recalls a sermon one Sunday when a white family that lived near door to the church was making a lot of noise. Dr. King didn’t use a microphone and the windows were open on hot Sunday afternoons. He asked if someone would go over and ask the family to please keep it down. Someone in the congregation went next door and the family did exactly what was asked of them. The point was they had no idea that they were disrupting the service.

“Reverend King said I want you to listen, and what do you hear now? He said those people were not making noise to disturb you. Don’t ever assume when somebody is doing something that disturbs you that they are trying to disturb you. The truck needed washing and the dog needed a bath. It had nothing to do with you," Thomas said. "But I thought that was a very good sermon in a sentence for him to tell us ‘Get that out of your mind, people are not thinking about you; they are not doing anything to hurt you.’ That was something to think about, sometimes we assume that sometimes it is aimed at us. It’s got nothing to do with us!”

Thankfully, there were never shots fired into Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, but it was a very intense time, to put it lightly. It was a time of change. Thomas knew that change was essential and inevitable:

“The thing that I still can’t understand is what in the heck (and that's the strongest word I can use) made the white folks think that was never gonna change," said Thomas. "What were they thinking? Why did they think that was never gonna change? You wave a bone in front of a dog all day long, he’s gonna get on his hind legs and reach up. What made them think it was never gonna change?”

“There is a lot of ignorance being spread that whites are telling their kids that we're stupid and they believed it because you believe what your mama says. If my mama had taught me to hate white folks, I'd hate y’all but never was anything said in our home about hating anybody or fighting anybody. We were taught that there were some things that you just don’t do.”

Althea Thomas with Susan Tedeschi at an event put on by the the National Museum of American History
Joie Gray/ Bert Thomas
Althea Thomas with musician Susan Tedeschi at an event put on by the the National Museum of American History

(In the audio recording, you can hear a segment of Althea Thomas playing her composition “The Lord’s Prayer.”)

Inequality can easily lead to feelings of anger, something that does not appear present in Thomas:

“If you let it get to you, you know, anger will eat you up,” she said.

Thomas also says that she doesn’t let herself get too worried. Instead, she uses the art of substitution, substituting a bad thought for a pleasant one. She often finds inspiration in three things:

“Love, bravery, and substitution of good stuff instead of bad stuff. If you get a mixture like that it’s like making a good salad. If you put the right stuff in it, it’s going to taste fine," Thomas contended.

It is apparent that the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr had a profound impact on Althea Thomas’s life and that message can be boiled down to one word:

“..that same little four-letter word: love. If you love somebody you won’t hurt them, you won’t insult them and then see, there is all kinds of hate.” she said. “We need to do what we are called to do and that is seek and save. You see something that needs to be done- do it- and we are not doing enough of that. We never have. Read the book of Genesis. They weren’t doing it back then!”

“The next word with love is education because people don’t really know how to love but we've got to teach people how.”

If you are ever in Washington DC, go take a look at a pair of Althea Thomas’s shoes in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Joe Moody is a senior news producer and host for Alabama Public Radio. Before joining the news team, he taught academic writing for several years nationally and internationally. Joe has a Master of Arts in foreign language education as well as a Master of Library and Information Studies. When he is not playing his tenor banjo, he enjoys collecting and listening to jazz records from the 1950s and 60s.
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