An African American in Imperial Russia: the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas

tags: Black History

Vladimir Alexandrov is the B. E. Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. He is author of The Black Russian (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2014).

Decades before P. Diddy, Jay-Z, and Russell Simmons, there was Frederick Bruce Thomas, known later in his life as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas — one of the most successful African-American musical impresarios and businessmen of his generation.

Why isn’t he better known now?

The first reason is that a century ago, white America had no interest in celebrating black achievement.

The second is that he triumphed not in the United States, but in Tsarist Russia, which was one of the last places anyone would have expected to find a black American at the dawn of the twentieth century.

As we celebrate Black History Month, Thomas’s story — which until recently was virtually forgotten — provides a striking example of how blacks who fled the United States to escape racism could rise to the top of the economic pyramid in Europe and elsewhere, despite the wars, revolutions, and other hurdles they had to overcome.

Thomas was born in 1872 in Coahoma County, Mississippi and got his wings from his parents — freedmen who had become successful farmers. However, since the Thomas family lived in the Delta — which has been called the most “Southern place on earth” — their prominence was also the cause of their ruin. In 1886, a rich white planter who resented their success tried to steal their land. After fighting him as much as they could, the Thomases decided it would be prudent to get out of harm’s way and moved to Memphis....

Read entire article at OUP blog

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