February 9, 2013: Born in 1934 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Franklin A. Thomas has made a name for himself as an inspiring leader in America. He is proof that there are no limits on what you can do in life except the limits that you place on yourself.
Thomas is the youngest child of a poverty-stricken but proud West Indian family. When Thomas was just eleven years old, his father, a laborer, became disabled and later died. Left to support six children, Thomas's mother, Viola, worked as a housekeeper.
Despite living in a poor neighborhood riddled with violence, Thomas was raised in a family atmosphere that fostered pride and an upward-looking mindset.
"I grew up in a family that just assumed that one, you were smart and capable; two, that you were going to work hard; and three, the combination of these two meant that anything was possible," said Thomas.
At 6’ 4”, Thomas was a star center at Franklin K. Lane High School. He was also a good student and a leader in the Concord Baptist Church Boy Scouts.
"He was something of a hero in my neighborhood," said Dr. Bernard Gifford, who also grew up in Bed-Stuy. "Teachers held him up as a model, because he was a good student, as well as a basketball player, and that was important."
Thomas was offered basketball scholarships by several major universities. He refused the scholarships and instead—on the advice of his mother who felt that others would question his intelligence if he accepted a sports scholarship—accepted an academic scholarship from Columbia University.
At Columbia, Thomas nevertheless continued his basketball career. He became the first African-American to captain an Ivy League basketball team and was twice voted the league's most valuable player.
In addition, he became active with the NAACP's efforts to increase black admissions at the university.
From his Columbia experience, he developed relationships with others who would later become movers and shakers in the fields of business, law and politics.
After graduating in 1956, Thomas took advantage of his ROTC training and spent four years in the U.S. Air Force where he worked his way up to captain and flew missions as a navigator with the Strategic Air Command. In 1960, he returned to Columbia to earn a degree in law.
He opted for a career in law after seeing a con man swindle his mother out of a down payment on a house she wanted to buy.
After graduating from law school, Thomas moved into a series of high-powered government jobs: He worked as an attorney for the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency; he served as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York; and then, he worked for three years as New York's deputy police commissioner in charge of legal matters.
In 1967, Thomas caught the attention of New York senator Robert Kennedy. Kennedy was looking for ways to improve living conditions in Bedford-Stuyvesant and wanted to create a nonprofit community development agency to raise and coordinate public and private redevelopment funds.
To head up the agency, Kennedy sought a "Bed-Stuy" resident. On the advice of staff member and future Black Enterprise publisher Earl Graves, Kennedy met with Thomas. Impressed with the 33-year-old lawyer, he appointed Thomas president of the newly created Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.
Thomas soon acquired the reputation of a man who gets the job done. During his ten years as president, the Restoration Corporation raised $63 million in public and private funds—including a significant amount from the Ford Foundation.
It built three apartment complexes and erected a 200,000 square foot shopping center. It rehabilitated 400 brownstone units, established the Billie Holiday Theater, helped to start or expand 120 businesses in the area, and developed a $21 million mortgage pool.
Under Thomas's leadership, the Restoration Corporation lured an IBM facility into the neighborhood, placed 7,000 residents in jobs, helped engender a positive feeling among the neighborhood's residents, and perhaps most importantly, became a model for hundreds more community-based redevelopment corporations around the country.
Following his tenure with Restoration, Thomas then served as president of the Ford Foundation, a vast and self-perpetuating trust originally endowed by car manufacturer Henry Ford and his son Edsel.
When Thomas resigned his post at the Ford Foundation in 1996, seventeen years later, his staff had used strategic sums more than $200 million annually to help needy communities, finance educational and cultural institutions, support civil rights in the United States and around the world, and strengthen and empower policy influencing organizations.
Since leaving the Foundation, Thomas has continued to serve in leadership positions in America's largest corporations and has been involved in several philanthropic ventures in South Africa.
Franklin Thomas has dedicated his talents and life to efforts that empower disenfranchised communities. But more than anything, he has served as an example to poor communities that there’s always a way up and out, if you believe in yourself.
Franklin A. Thomas, we acknowledge your undying perseverance and your enormous contributions.