Submitted by Cliff McCarthy, Archivist, Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History
Thomas Thomas was a legendary figure in Springfield’s African American community. He was a great story-teller and, as is often the case, his tales have been reported many times over the years, making it difficult to sort the facts from the fiction. He was born a slave in Oxford, Maryland in 1817, the son of Joseph and Sophia (Giles) Thomas. He worked on Chesapeake River steamboats as a waiter when he was a boy. During this period, he supposedly met Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnett, two black men whose fame would grow over the next decades.
As a young man, Thomas spent time working on the Mississippi River steamboats, where he eventually earned enough to buy his freedom. He continued to work the Arkansas and Mississippi river trade out of New Orleans and into Indian Territory. He also operated as an entrepreneur, buying vegetables and dairy products cheap and selling them at a profit in the cities. He was jailed, once, in Louisiana for violating its laws against free blacks entering the state and he was forced to leave that state. He eventually landed in Springfield, Massachusetts around 1843-44, where his mother and sister had already settled. He went to work in the Hampden House hotel, at Court and Main Streets, and later at the Union House, near the railroad depot on Bliss Street.
There, he became acquainted with abolitionist John Brown, who had opened his wool business in the same neighborhood. A chair, given to the Thomas family by John Brown, is on display at the Wood Museum of Springfield History. Thomas became an avid supporter of abolition and is said to have been a member of the “League of Gileadites,” the group of citizens, mostly black men, who pledged to defend by any means any local African Americans threatened under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Thomas was also reported to have been an agent on the Underground Railroad.
In 1850, Thomas Thomas became the steward at the Samoset House in Holyoke. Three years later, he left the area for Springfield, Illinois, where he worked at the American House, directly across from the office of an attorney named Abraham Lincoln, whom he served frequently. In 1855, the hotel closed and Thomas returned to Massachusetts in time to join a company of men leaving for California. After three years in California and a few more in Illinois, he returned to Springfield, Mass. in 1862, settling permanently. He opened a restaurant, first on Main Street and later on Worthington, near Main. His business was very successful and he entertained “many dignitaries, court officials, business and professional men.”
Thomas was married three times; first, to a woman named Lydia, who died in Maryland, circa 1837. Thomas married secondly a Margaret Williams of Baltimore, Md. in 1841, who gave birth to two children that died young. In 1843, Thomas married Martha H. Hall and the couple adopted a child, Hattie Belle Thomas, formerly Simmon. Thomas Thomas died in Springfield on March 9, 1894.
Carvalho, III, Joseph, Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1865, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 2011.
“Death of Thomas Thomas,” Springfield Republican, 10 March 1894.
“Thomas Thomas’s Retirement,” Springfield Republican, 8 January 1893.
1850 U.S. Census for Thomas Thomas, Holyoke, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, as reproduced at Ancestry.com., in which he is listed as a hotel waiter.
1855 Massachusetts Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, as reproduced at FamilySearch.org., in which his occupation is given as a “cook.”
1860 U.S. Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Sangamon Co., Illinois, as reproduced at Ancestry.com, in which he is listed as working at the Chenery House Hotel.
1865 Massachusetts Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, as reproduced at FamilySearch.org, in which his occupation is given as “saloon keeper”.
1870 U.S. Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, as reproduced at FamilySearch.org, in which his occupation is given as “saloon keeper”.
1880 U.S. Census for Thomas Thomas, Springfield, Hampden Co., Massachusetts, as reproduced at Ancestry.com, in which his occupation is given as “restauranter”.