He became Virginia's first Black Supreme Court Justice. Now, he hopes his powerful words can inspire others.

Posted at 5:21 PM, Mar 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-29 20:36:15-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- John Charles Thomas has a love for language, using his words to woo and inspire others.

Thomas, who is the first African American justice to sit on the Supreme Court of Virginia, has performed his own poetry before crowds at Carnegie Hall. He credits his love of the arts to his grandfather who taught him classical poetry when he was a young boy.

"Because he and his friends liked to hear me as a child recite so much that I kept learning poetry. As I sit here today, I have 50-something poems I've written by myself," Thomas said.

This bolstered his confidence which served him well throughout his life. This confidence would help him land a job as a television reporter in Norfolk. He carried this confidence when he was selected by Gov. Chuck Robb to become the first-ever African American on the Supreme Court of Virginia and was the youngest person ever sworn in on that court.

That pivotal moment in Virginia history came after he had been tapped as the first-ever African American partner in a formerly all-white Richmond law firm.

"I knew that no person of color had ever seen that. When you open that package and you see all the old partnership agreements in a row. You see Justice Powell's name on it and you see other people on there and then you add your name to it, so I knew at that moment that was something big," Thomas said. "I knew for example when I was on the bench at the Supreme Court and they were putting my robe on, I knew that was big."

It was a dramatic shift from the life Thomas had known in his childhood. growing up in a segregated Norfolk community in the early 50s. In his childhood, Thomas found himself faced with poverty, domestic violence in his home and the obstacles of racism.

Despite these struggles, none would keep him from excelling in school. He would go on to attend UVA with his sights on a career in government.

Thomas' life of service began long before he ascended to the Virginia Supreme Court in 1983. During his college days, he was bold enough to write a letter to former Gov. Linwood Holton to speak out about including young people in the government, prompting the governor to appoint Thomas to the Virginia Commission for Children and Youth.

Not long after while on summer break and working in a warehouse, Thomas would get a call from the White House. President Nixon had tapped him to be the co-chair of a national task force on education for a White House youth conference.

Opportunities that afforded Thomas and his family rich life experiences brought him to the table with world leaders and led to numerous professional accolades.

A serious injury would cut his time on the Supreme Court of Virginia short but Thomas' story of service will forever be noted in the history books. It's a story he hopes will inspire young African Americans who are facing similar life circumstances.

"Basically, it can be done. We can do it. It takes hard work. It takes a lot of effort and it takes putting the time in but we can. I'm talking about people of color all over the world. We can get the job done."



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