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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Martha Thomas shares stories at her Fort Wayne home.

At 86, leading a historic life

– Although small in stature, Martha Thomas has a big laugh.

It is a good laugh; a strong one; the kind that comes from down deep. Her head tilts back and she lets go, louder than you’d think this 86-year-old has it in her. As she does, she clasps her small hands together in front of her chest, the way some pray.

It does the soul good to see her this way. It does her good to be this way.

On this particular bright August day, inside the two-story home where the late morning breeze waltzes through her front door screen, she isn’t wearing earrings, since the tiny, pierced holes in her lobes are unadorned. Other than that, she’s dressed to the nines, topped with a flowing, multi-colored blouse.

Just below her throat is a single stone necklace, a shade of beige. Her short, gray hair is neat. And her makeup, what little she wears, is perfect. But then it should be.

Bold, block letters on the back window of her red Dodge Neon that’s parked on the street advertise her part-time job. “Avon,” the window reads. “Buy or Sell. Unit Leader.”

At 86, Thomas isn’t just an Avon lady. She is a leader.

Of course she is.

A lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Thomas remains a civil rights activist who is on the organization’s executive committee and was recently the chairperson for Women in NAACP. Her late sister, Elizabeth Dobynes, was once the local chapter’s president.

“Miss Martha is more than my mentor; she is my bedrock,” said the Rev. Dr. Saharra Bledsoe, president of the Fort Wayne/Allen County NAACP branch.

“She is an absolute necessity, whether we’re talking about combating crime, seeking justice. What Miss Martha brings to the table is the understanding of not only what worked in the past, but she has always been able to provide me with a different way of looking at something and approaching it for this day and time.

“She’s absolutely irreplaceable, and I consider her my own special private angel. It’s just a blessing to have her at the table with me.”

Between her work with the NAACP, Avon and visiting churches and hospitals, Thomas isn’t home much to see the grass grow inside her white picket fence.

“I think if you stay active, you don’t have time to go stale,” she says. “I can’t sit around and do nothing. I’ve got to be doing something.” Then comes her laugh.

Her voice still has the sound of Alabama, more than 60 years since she left Marion, not far from Selma.

“I came up here in December 1952,” Thomas says. “Cold. I was not used to all this cold weather.”

It was her grandfather who first ventured north to find work in Fort Wayne. He wrote to other family members back in Marion, confirming that there were jobs here. Good jobs, in factories that paid well. A brother was next to arrive; then Martha’s twin sister, Mary, and then Martha, when she was 25.

One by one, as they grew older, Martha’s two brothers and four sisters migrated from middle Alabama to northern Indiana. While all of the immediate family was Alabama-born, some are buried here, including her mother, Maggie Wilson Fincher Jackson, who died three days after Christmas 2004, when she was 95.

“Four (siblings) remain now,” Thomas says from her dining room table. “Liz passed away in ’99. She was 70 years old. After that, my brother passed away two years ago. And I lost a sister in March of this year.”

When Martha was a girl, her mother took care of the house and her brothers and sisters, and her dad was a sharecropper. Even though she thought she was poor while growing up – since she didn’t have peanut butter or baloney sandwiches like the other kids at school – looking back, she says, it was a good childhood. There was love in the family, the kids played together in the nearby woods, and the girls dressed up dolls made of corn cobs.

But at times, there was the worst kind of trouble around Marion, located about 80 miles northwest of Montgomery. According to historian Patricia Sullivan, Montgomery “remained one of the most rigidly segregated cities of the South” in the 1950s.

“One of our school mates, they (white men) killed him,” Thomas says. “He was talking to a white girl, and they saw him, and a couple men got him and tied him to a car and dragged him until he was dead. We didn’t see it, but we heard our parents talk about it. That was devastating to us because he was our classmate. He was young – maybe 14, 15 years old.”

In 1958, about five years after Martha moved away, a story that drew national and worldwide attention surfaced when a 53-year-old black man named Jimmy Wilson was sentenced to death by a jury in Marion for stealing $1.95 from Estelle Barker, a white woman for whom Wilson occasionally worked. Also alleged was an attempted rape, which Wilson denied and which was never proved. Although the death penalty was overturned, Wilson was granted parole only after serving 16 years in prison.

Marion was also the home of Coretta Scott King, wife of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Even though the two women share the same birth year, 1927, their paths never crossed. While Coretta Scott graduated as her school’s valedictorian in 1945, Martha Fincher didn’t graduate until 1949.

“We didn’t start school until we were 7,” Thomas says. “And we missed a whole year of school because we had to go to the fields and work. Dad was a sharecropper, and he said, ‘I’ve got to get all my cotton in, and all my hay in, and my corn.’ We couldn’t go to school then, and we missed a whole year. I must have been 15 or 16 then.”

Her twin sister, Mary, never returned to school. Martha made sure she did.

Nearly 60 years after Martha graduated, the sisters traveled together on a bus to Washington, D.C., for the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

“I wouldn’t have believed it. I would not have believed it,” she said of witnessing a black president taking the oath of office.

“As old as I was, we went to the inauguration. And I told my sister, ‘I never thought I would see this.’ She said, ‘I didn’t, either.’ I thought sometime there would be one, but I didn’t figure it would be now.”

Jonathan Ray, president and CEO of the Fort Wayne Urban League, calls Thomas and her surviving generation “priceless” for their knowledge and experiences, particularly within the civil rights movement.

“It’s not really so much a written history, because it’s just not ending up in the school books that kids grow up with,” Ray said. “Somebody like Martha can share things that, for whatever reason, just aren’t there.

“She has lived the history. People say the best teaching tool is experiential knowledge, and she lived it. I can be told about it. I can read about it. But she lived it. She knows it inside and out. It’s part of her DNA.”

The gorgeous late morning has turned to early afternoon, and Martha Thomas notices the time. She says she has a 12:30 p.m. meeting at her house.

“I’m getting old,” she says. “I want to be a part of (the NAACP), but I don’t want to be over anything, and right now, I am. And I don’t want to see it die, because we need the NAACP. There are still issues that need to be worked on.”

Plus, there’s that folded Avon bag on her buffet table that needs to be delivered or picked up.