Going Over the Mountain
How John Charles Thomas overcame poverty and racism to become the first African-American justice on the Virginia Supreme Court
Published in 2006 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on June 23, 2006
Updated on November 3, 2016
“The Honorable John Charles Thomas.”
Calling to set up my interview, I had asked to speak with Mister John Charles Thomas and the receptionist quickly corrected me with a whip crack of propriety in her tone. Thomas has been in private practice for the past 16 years, but he is still called “Justice” or “Judge” by those who know him. The honorific is well deserved, not only for what Thomas has achieved — becoming the first African-American lawyer to rise through the ranks to make partner in a traditionally all-white Southern firm, and the first African-American and the youngest justice ever on the Virginia Supreme Court — but also for overcoming poverty and racism to achieve those accomplishments.
While friends and associates ensure that Thomas receives due respect, he does not lord entitlement over others. He is jovial and approachable, setting people at ease with a self-deprecating humor that often expands to include them. He razzes me throughout our interview, at one point saying, “All reporters are bums.” After a beat, he laughs and confesses that he, too, was a reporter 36 years ago.
“You’ve got to make it fun,” Thomas says. “I like to see people happy. I like to see them smile. I like to see — as hard as it can get — the young lawyers actually enjoying what they’re doing.”
As chief of Hunton & Williams’ appellate division, Thomas reviews an average of one brief a day, but his door remains open to colleagues. If their intrusion involves a serious matter, his convivial manner vanishes. He quotes cases and relevant decisions from the scores of legal tomes lining his shelves, punctuating an occasional point with a clap of his hands or repeating a phrase for emphasis. His rhythm and tone are pure Southern Baptist. He is 55 years old with salt-and-pepper hair, but he argues with the vigor of a man half his age.
The day of our interview, the stack of briefs on his desk is topped by a sheaf of papers with the Olympic symbol blazoned on the front. “This just happens to be the anti-doping rules for Torino,” Thomas says. He’s been reading up on anti-doping regulations over the past year, ever since William Slate, president of the American Arbitration Association, nominated Thomas to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. “It’s a small, elite panel from around the world,” Slate says, “and there’s no dearth of people who wish to be on it. But [Thomas] was absolutely the first person I thought of. He’s not only culturally sensitive and knowledgeable about civil and common law issues, but he is also someone who fits well on a global stage. At a conference in Croatia, he brought the message about the rule of law to a place that was still getting over a major, international conflict, and he resonated with everyone. The Croatians just couldn’t get enough of him. I was besieged by letters and e-mails saying, ‘Send him again!’”
Most days, one can find Thomas reclining in a leather swivel chair editing a brief on a tablet computer in his lap. Soft jazz transforms his office into a tranquil setting, with every available surface displaying a memento from Thomas’ life. On one corner of his desk sits a pine cone encased in acrylic, a gift from Thomas’ uncle so Thomas could have his own Georgia Pine. On the other corner stands an iron Samurai statuette, a gift Thomas gave himself 10 years after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“It’s frightening,” Thomas says. “The doctors come in the room and they say, ‘Justice, you’ve got a tumor about the size of the tip of my baby finger. It’s deep behind your right eye, beside your right ear in your brain right there.’ My wife basically went into shock.”
Because of the tumor, Thomas left Virginia’s Supreme Court on October 31, 1989, and checked into the Mayo Clinic on November 3. Surgeons removed the tumor a few years later. “I’m fine now,” he says. “Of course, I should be skinny” — he pauses for a moment to pat his belly — “but nobody’s skinny.”
Swiping his thumb across the scanning slot on his computer, Thomas opens a program that offers a satellite view of the earth. After he types in an address, the image on the screen zooms in on Norfolk until the spot where his grandparents’ house once stood comes into view. “This is the old black neighborhood, Huntersville,” he says, “and I was born at this corner right here in an old house that stood on that corner.”
Thomas’s 12th-floor office overlooks the James River from one side and trendy Shockoe Slip from the other. The office is fewer than 100 miles away from the image on the screen but it belongs to a different world. As a child, Thomas was separated from his father, who was locked away in prison. When Thomas was 14 his mother left as well, moving to New York in 1965 to find work. So Thomas lived upstairs in his grandparents’ house.
“It wasn’t some idyllic Leave It to Beaver childhood,” he says. “It just wasn’t. My family got the basket from church — you know, the basket people put together for Thanksgiving. They give you the cornbread and the greens, the turkey and all that. Well, our family got the basket.” He pauses to collect himself, and when he continues his voice is quavering. “And I remember my minister gave me a book. I only had that one book, but it was my book. I must have read that book a hundred times. It was about some school in the Midwest, some white kids — their school burned down and they had bake sales to help rebuild their school. God, I read that book.”
Instead of dwelling on the unfairness of his situation, Thomas was determined to “get out there” and do something about it. A committee of grandparents, aunts, uncles, preachers and neighbors reared, advised and encouraged him. They charged Thomas with a mission to make things better.
“In the segregated schools,” he says, “we had all the hand-medown, ragged books because the black kids got the books after the white kids had them. We would get these books with kids’ names on them and the backs ripped off, and we’d have to tape them together and it would be last year’s edition. But that was what we had — a lack of resources, a lack of money, just a lack, lack, lack, all along the way. And you had to make something of it. You had to move that mountain or go over it.”
Thomas accepted his neighborhood committee’s challenge, but he was not the only one in his family to go over the mountain. His cousin, Leah Ward Sears, is the current chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia and the first female African-American chief justice in the nation.
“If you look at the whole family,” Sears says, “the family just had the right kinds of values — a strong religious faith and being very optimistic. Even though we were born into a country that had reneged on its promise of fairness and justice and all of that, we knew we would make it. Most of my father’s sisters were principals and teachers, and they all went to college even though they were dirt poor. Everybody did something and did it very, very well.”
Thomas was a National Achievement Scholar at Maury High School, earning a four-year scholarship to the University of Virginia. He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1975 and joined the old-line, traditionally white law firm of Hunton & Williams.
“I was the first black guy they ever had,” Thomas says, “and there were clients who didn’t want me to go to court for them — big, important clients. I remember one case in particular where the client didn’t want me to go to trial. They were terrified that if this black guy went to trial for them, it just wasn’t going to work out. So the firm said to them, ‘He’s one of our best lawyers; he’s assigned to this case; he’s going to do it.’ But they also assigned an additional lawyer to the case; they said, ‘John, you need some help.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t, but okay, fine.’ So both of us go to trial, and I try this case and we win this case. And this client decides thereafter they don’t want anybody to do their trial work but me. They’ve sent me bottles of liquor every Christmas for years.”
It wasn’t just clients and co-workers Thomas had to win over. “I went to a meeting of black lawyers when I got to town,” Thomas explains, “and somebody actually said out loud, ‘Oh, here comes that Uncle Tom nigger from Main Street.’ And I’m thinking: This is what Martin Luther King died for? He wanted society to be integrated at all levels. He wanted black people to be everywhere, in every profession, in every part of life. And these people were saying, ‘What the hell are you doing there?’”
Thomas didn’t let the detractors stop him. In 1982, he made national news by becoming the first African-American lawyer to “go up the line” at an old-line Southern law firm to make partner. “I come into my office,” Thomas says, “and there on my desk is this envelope that contained the partner’s agreement. I open this thing up and I look at all these signatures over the years of these very famous lawyers whose names are on this agreement, and I actually think, ‘No black person has ever seen this before. I’m the first one to see this thing and I’m the first one to sign my name to it.’ I might have gotten a little teary-eyed, but there you go, I added my name.”
Nearly one year after making partner, Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia — the first African-American justice on the court and the youngest ever. The next youngest justice was 21 years older than he, which created a few problems. Thomas believed lawyers were present to satisfy the court, but the other justices thought argument time belonged only to the lawyers and that justices should be quiet and listen. “They would do that even when the lawyer was reading his brief,” Thomas says. “I mean, the guys would actually be reading what was on the printed page. Well, I couldn’t stand it. I’ve read the brief already. I don’t need somebody to read it to me. And so I started asking questions.”
Conrad Shumadine, a commercial litigator with Wilcox & Savage, recalls what it was like to argue cases before Justice Thomas. “In my experience,” Shumadine says, “he took a much more active role in oral argument than what I had experienced in the past. He was very well prepared and he had specific points he wanted to raise. He was very aggressive in pressing you on those points and making lawyers respond. I thought it was wonderful, because talking about the wrong subject doesn’t do anyone any good.”
Thomas knew which questions to ask because he researched all the details of a case before hearing arguments. He read everything connected to a case — briefs, appendices, the record, other cases that were cited — and then he would go through the evidence boxes. “Friends would ask me, ‘Why don’t you let your clerks read that stuff?’ And I would say, ‘Suppose your business was on the line? Or your mama’s house was on the line? Or your life was on the line? Would you want me to read it or somebody else to read it?’ And they would all shut up.”
During seven years as a justice, Thomas participated in thousands of appellate rulings covering the full body of Virginia law and authored more than 200 decisions. One of his landmark decisions stated that a husband could be convicted of raping his wife in certain circumstances, reversing the rulings of earlier courts.
After his cancer scare, Thomas returned to Hunton & Williams, and for the past 16 years he’s been arguing appeals and editing briefs. “I have a courtroom here,” Thomas says. “We actually hold court and moot the lawyers who have arguments. Sometimes we’ll put it on with the video camera for clients to see, and sometimes I will moot lawyers from other offices on video hook-up — Atlanta, other places. They’ll argue and I comment from here.”
He also delivers numerous college commencement addresses, constitutional lectures at government conferences and speeches to international organizations. One of his most memorable lectures was to West Point cadets.
“Our military swears an oath to uphold the Constitution,” Thomas says. “With other nations, it’s queen and country. In Germany, a long time ago, it was the Fuhrer. With our soldiers, [it’s] the law. And because they swear an oath to the law, they take law at West Point. Anyhow, I was nominated to make this lecture, and toward the end I talk about the nature of America. I say, ‘I want you to know that no matter where you are in the world, what foxhole you’re in, what barren landscape you’re in, that America is worth preserving. You’re hearing this from a black man born in the segregated American South. And if I tell you that our country is worth preserving, you can believe that it is.’”