Taylor Lee Thomas (1911-1988) was born October 5,1911, in the former Burnham City Hospital in Champaign, Illinois. He was the only child of Woodward and Alice T. Thomas. When he was young his mother
and he saw some Ku Klux Klan members march down Neil Street. During his grade school years he attended Columbia School, where he was the only black student, and Gregory School. His mother always insisted that he go to school to get a good education. Later in the years he went to Champaign High School.
According to an oral history Thomas recorded in the early 1980s, Thomas wanted to tryout for the drums in the high school band. He brought his drums to school early so he could get a place in the band. He said the band instructor looked at him like he was dirt and said there were no places left for drums. In his senior year he had his first milk shake in Louisville, KY because black people couldn't have them in Champaign-Urbana.
After he graduated from high school in 1929, he studied for his bachelor's degree at Tennessee State University, an HBCU, where he earned his degree in English and history in 1935. He sent out about
75 letters to find a teaching job. Only a few letters came back to him but no jobs were offered so he started waiting tables and he found other odd jobs. He saw white males who did not have as much education as he
had, but they had better jobs. He got tired of the situation so he decided to move to Indianapolis where he found a government job as a night watchman. He had so many jobs, extension courses, and singing lessons
that five years later he got a deadly sickness called tuberculosis. He had to stay in bed four years. When he got over his sickness he married Mary Grace Jordan.
In the fall of 1945, he became the first director of the Douglass Center, a recreation center named for Frederick Douglass. At the Douglass Center, he started a kindergarten and he coached athletic teams that
were so good he was offered a teaching job at Jackson, an all black school in Danville. He was educated to be a teacher and it took 12 years to be one. In Danville, in addition to being a teacher, he was the coach of all thesports. His football team won all their games for six years. He was the education association vice-president but he was stopped from becoming president of the association because of his skin color. While he was doing all of this he earned a master's degree in education in 1951, and an advanced certificate in educational administration in 1955, both from the University of Illinois.
In 1948, one hundred twenty community people were appointed to special advisory committees for community planning in Champaign. Of those members, there were only two women and one black male,
Taylor Thomas. Taylor Thomas was the first black teacher in the Urbana #116 District when he was hired there in 1956. He introduced sociology to Urbana High School, and collected sports tickets at games for many years. In the late 1950s, Mr. Thomas was invited to the Conference on Children and Youth at the White House in Washington, D.C. In 1961, the Rosemary yearbook from the Urbana High School was dedicated to Taylor Thomas. Mr. Thomas became the first black administrator in Urbana when he was hired in 1968 as Assistant Principal of the high school. In 1972 he became the first black Assistant Superintendent for Student Services in Urbana, a job that lasted until 1977 when he retired.
In Taylor's life he was exposed to a lot of discrimination. For instance, Taylor and his wife had to wait 12 years to get a suitable house. It took so long because they were black. When Mr. and Mrs. Thomas met
with a real estate agent about a house they wanted to buy, the agent said that if the Thomases had told him on the telephone who they were it would have saved a lot of time. Taylor Thomas said it is important to have a goal to strive for. He wanted blacks to have the same equal rights as whites, and to be in positions of authority over anyone regardless of race. In 1988 Taylor Thomas died.
The following text comes from a 1983 portrait of Thomas:
"Mr. Thomas has worked for the federal government in Indianapolis. He has taught in Danville and he has worked at Douglass Center. But he is best known as a teacher and administrator at Urbana High School from 1956 to 1977. During the 1940s he was President of the local branch of the NAACP and he remains actively involved in volunteer work with the United Way, Family Service, and other service organizations. His grandparents came to Champaign in 1880 and Mr. Thomas was born and raised in the community. As a youth he remembers the KKK marching down Neil Street to a cross burning. He also recounts how when he was in school he was not allowed in the band and, although he played football, he could not join the "c Club." He had his first milkshake on a trip out of town because Blacks could not go into Champaign drugstores. He has seen the community grow and certain changes made, but acknowledges that discrimination still exists. He is most proud to have "a good marriage" and to have received recognition from the Black community."
A Taylor Thomas Subdivision exists in North Champaign in his honor.
More information on Taylor Thomas:
A 1984 essay by Thomas on "The State of Black Champaign County"
More information on Thomas from eBlackCU: http://bit.ly/KbWrga