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Color: Brown
Food: Black eyed oeas and rice, chicken
Quote: I'll Be Doggone.
Season: Autumn
Vacation Destination: Jamaica
Jacksonville, Florida
Interview Description:

Biography |

Interview Date: 10/2/2016

Civil rights activist and hospitality entrepreneur Henry “Hank” Thomas was born on August 29, 1941 in Jacksonville, Florida, growing up mainly in St. Augustine, Florida. His mother, Tiny R. Hegg, with only a sixth-grade education, taught him to read at the age of four. Never knowing his biological father, Thomas was raised by an abusive stepfather. From a young age, Thomas questioned the injustice of segregated life in St. Augustine by sitting on city bus seats reserved for whites and correcting a salesman who addressed his aunt by her first name only. He received a scholarship to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C.

At Howard, Thomas was inspired by the burgeoning student movement. He participated in lunch counter sit-ins and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In May of 1961, when his roommate fell ill, Thomas agreed to take his place on a bus trip meant to spur the federal government to uphold its ban on segregation in interstate commerce travel, making Thomas one of the Freedom Riders. He endured his first arrest in Winnsboro, South Carolina and survived firebombing and a brutal assault in Anniston, Alabama at the hands of a mob. Arriving in Jackson, Mississippi, Thomas and the other Freedom Riders were arrested and convicted of breaching the peace. Upon his release from Parchman State Prison Farm, Thomas was the first Freedom Rider to appeal his conviction. He was arrested twenty-two times over the course of his civil rights activism. Thomas completed a 1965 to 1966 tour of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Army medic, and was awarded the Purple Heart for his service. He moved to Atlanta, Georgia and served on the local fire department while working the night-shift at McDonald’s. He and a fellow firefighter began their own business, purchasing and operating a laundromat. After selling his share of the laundry, Thomas acquired, first, a Dairy Queen franchise, and then a Burger King franchise, before becoming the franchisee of six McDonald’s restaurants. Thomas now owns four Marriott Hotels, two Fairfield Inns, and two TownePlace Suites. He is the president of Victoria Hospitality Properties, Inc. and vice-president of Hayon, Inc., which owns and operates McDonald’s in the Atlanta area. In 1993, Thomas was one of three U.S. veterans to travel to Vietnam for a reconciliation meeting with North Vietnamese soldiers.
He has received numerous awards for his civil rights commitments and his business achievements. In 2010, he was inducted into the Atlanta Business League Men of Influence Hall of Fame and received the 365black award given by McDonald’s Inc. In 2011, he was inducted into the International Civil Rights “Walk of Fame.” He is a lifetime member of the NAACP and sits on the board of trustees for Morehouse School of Medicine.

Thomas and his wife, Yvonne Thomas, live in Stone Mountain, Georgia. They have two children and four grandchildren.

Henry “Hank” Thomas was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 1, 2016.

Speaker Bureau Notes: