Thomas Thomas: Man About Town
Thomas Thomas was a legendary character in Springfield’s African American community. As is often the case, he was a great story-teller and his tales have been reported many times over the years, so it’s difficult to sort the facts from the fiction. He was born a slave in Oxford, Maryland in 1817 and 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 in Louisiana for violating its laws against free blacks entering the state and he was forced to leave that state. He eventually landed in 1844 in Springfield, Massachusetts where his mother and sister had 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. 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 and opened a restaurant, first on Main Street and later on Worthington, near Main. His business was very successful and he entertained dignitaries, court officials, business and professional men. He died in Springfield in March of 1894.