NIDA E. THOMAS : REMEMBERED

CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST, NJ AND NY EDUCATION OFFICIAL, LONGTIME MONITOR OF ELIZABETH (NJ) HISTORICAL MEMORY, DIES, AGE 95

Nida ThomasNida E. Thomas was born, Nida Edwards, in Wayne County, North Carolina in May, 1914 and came to Elizabeth about 1926. Her father, Thomas Edwards, originally a sharecropper, had joined his family’s lot with the great internal migration of African-Americans to the North during the years before and after the first World War. She drew from her African-American heritage and received support from her mother who worked in Elizabeth for Libson Bros and her father whom E I Dupont employed as a mechanic. Her family supported her educational ambitions and her focus on a post-secondary education as a social worker. However, at Battin High School in her native city, she was told that there were no jobs for her and no real educational programs to train her. She nevertheless harbored her ambitions and enrolled in 1938 at Atlanta University’s School of Social Work, now the Clark-Atlanta School of Social Work.

On several occasions she and her fellow students gathered in the dormitory parlor to listen to a visiting W. E. B. Dubois, the distinguished scholar, NAACP activist and editor of the influential magazine, Crisis. In a later interview Thomas recalled, “We’d sit on the floors and sit in chairs, whatever, and just listen to him talk. Well, now you can imagine my surprise. Here’s this man talking about things, going to Europe and going to Russia and doing things in this country and doing things in that country … and I didn’t even know where these countries were. I sat there really in a state of absolute unbelief that this man knew so much about everything. And he, he never let us forget that we had a right, and we shouldn’t let color prevent us from having set goals for ourselves, and that we should work toward those. He believed that there were opportunities, but that we needed the appropriate education to be able to do those things. What I learned later was that he was way ahead of the times. He was thinking things that people didn’t think were possible. Later I learned that he was one of the first to help set up the Crisis magazine for the NAACP. And he spent a lot of time with the NAACP. And of course, Crisis magazine is still done, and that was quite a long time ago.”

Nida Thomas graduated from Atlanta University in 1942 and took a job as Community Relations Director for the Urban League. For a time she worked in Atlanta, memorably under the direction of Goode Brown. In 1944 the League sent her to Englewood, New Jersey, and she dealt with the racial tensions there until 1952. There she organized youth groups, addressed discrimination in entertainment and restaurant establishments, and developed non-violent responses to entertainment barriers in her native city. In addition, she addressed problems of prejudicial barriers in the educational system, housing issues and, in general, the perceived problem of black homeownership.

In 1952 Nida Thomas took a position in the New York Education State Department under Commissioner James Allen, who relied on her to develop a multicultural set of precedent-setting curriculum materials. Her outreach work with many organizations put her in regular contact with Commissioner Allen who assured her priorities were those of his department. This informal network, she later acknowledged, assured her program success in the state bureaucracy.

She was a proud participant in the 1962 March on Washington which culminated in Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have A Dream.” Like so many activists that day, Nida also had a dream.

During this period she also enrolled in graduate work at New York University’s School of Education and received her Masters degree. During her NYU days, she met and studied with Professor Dan Dodson, a tall, improbable Texan, who began his professional career as an avowed segregationist. Dodson’s conversion experience to integration priorities was a function of his own “northern” education and exposure to students like Nida E. Thomas. Dodson’s work with Brooklyn Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey, advocating support for an extraordinary athlete named Jackie Robinson, advanced the cause of integration. This Robinson association reminded Nida E Thomas of an earlier event at a Jersey City baseball game [April 18, 1946 between Montreal Royals and the Jersey City Little Giants] with her father, witnessing a Black ballplayer, [Jackie Robinson, second baseman for the Montreal Royals] - “I was flabbergasted” – in the midst of a white audience and culture. Fortunately, “she admitted,” when he came to bat, he did very well.” [Robinson that day homered his second time at bat, then added three singles, two stolen bases and drove in four runs. He finished the 1946 season with .349 average and the International League’s batting title.] Thomas’s experience at this event sparked her sense of African-American possibility, as it did for so many other Americans.

In 1968 she left the New York Department of Education for New Jersey and went to Trenton and the New Jersey Department of Education as Director of the New Jersey Office of Equal Opportunity, where she developed the state’s first affirmative action program. She replicated much of her work from New York into her adopted state, paying special attention to the breakdown of racial barriers in New Jersey sport competitions among public schools.

In 1984 Nida E.Thomas retired from her professional obligations, settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey and entered the busiest stage of her life. Among other things she served in many capacities for the United Way and on the boards of Family and Children’s Services, Infant Development Center (with Harriet Bloomfield), and the Community Coordinated Child Care. For a number of years she was president of the Feminist Press, which made a special effort to reprint books authored by black feminist authors. In December 1999 Thomas became the first co-president (with Orlando Edreira) of the Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc. [http://www.visithistoricalelizabethnj.org], which seeks to construct a new historical narrative of Elizabeth, N.J. including racial and ethnic populations ordinarily omitted from serious presences in this genre. She busied herself in her retirement more actively than in many of her career positions. She was a life-long activist in behalf of the promise of American life for all of the country’s peoples.

Nida Edwards married and had two daughters, Patricia (of Las Cruces, New Mexico who passed away June 2004) and Rosemary (of Albany, New York). She was a longtime member of Elizabeth’s Zion Baptist church. She always admired the achievements of black professionals like Mabel G. Holmes, the first black principal in Elizabeth New Jersey schools and John W. Davis, formerly president of West Virginia State University and her Engelwood, New Jersey associate in the 1950s.

Her brother Jesse, b 1912, resided with her in Elizabeth at 842 Lafayette St for many years. In the 1930 Federal Census the Thomas family resided at 150 Livingston St, which they rented for $32.50 per month. Thomas Edwards, 39, worked as a “Detector” (unclear) in a shipyard, his wife, Mary, 34, also a native of North Carolina, kept house with their children: Jesse, 16, Nida, 15, Wallace, 12 and Nathaniel 10. Also in the household was Molly Gwaith, Edwards’s mother in law, a widow, 55, a native of South Carolina. Their home was in Elizabeth’s 2d Ward and their neighbors were the Alfred Thomas family.

Nida Thomas died August 26, 2008, at 12:15 PM. age 95. A Memorial service will take place at Bethany Baptist Church, Newark, NJ on Sept 8, 2008 at 1PM.

Belcher Memorial
Belcher Memorial