Henry Thomas is a prime example of the Black American success story. A recent recipient of the Hank Aaron Champion for Justice honor, Thomas is man of note as a legendary civil rights activist and entrepreneur.
Thomas was one of the original Freedom Riders who traveled on Greyhound and Trailways through the South in 1961 to protest racial segregation, and hold demonstrations along the way. An all-American hero, he was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participated in multiple Freedom Rides. In 1965, he served in the Vietnam War as a medic. He was injured in battle and subsequently received a Purple Heart. He is featured in the National Park Service’s Walk of Fame as well as a McDonald’s 365Black Awards honoree.
Born Aug. 29, 1941, in Jacksonville, Florida, Thomas grew up sitting in white seats on local buses. Thomas attended Howard University in D.C., where he became an active member of the SNCC. After the Freedom Rides and the Vietnam War Hank Thomas moved to Atlanta, which he thought was the best place for Black middle-class at the time. Here, he became an entrepreneur, opening up a laundromat. First he became the franchisee of a Burger King and two Dairy Queens, and eventually franchisee of six McDonald’s restaurant. He currently owns four Marriott Hotels, two Fairfield Inns and two TownePlace Suites operations. He is president of the Hayon Group Inc., which owns three McDonald’s franchises in Atlanta, and is the president of Victoria Hospitality Properties Inc., which runs the four Marriott Hotels.
Thomas has served on the boards of the APEX Museum, the Butler Street YMCA, the 100 Black Men of DeKalb and a Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Piney Woods School (an African-American boarding school) in Jackson, MS, a life member of the NAACP and an active fundraiser for the UNCF. It’s worth noting that it’s a family business. Thomas is married to Yvonne Thomas who serves as Secretary of Victoria Hospitality Properties and Secretary and CFO of Hayon Group, Inc.
Over a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans in Southern states still inhabited a starkly unequal world of disenfranchisement, segregation and various forms of oppression, including race-inspired violence. “Jim Crow” laws at the local and state levels barred them from classrooms and bathrooms, from theaters and train cars, from juries and legislatures. Many leaders rose within the African-American community during the Civil Rights era. They risked — and sometimes lost — their lives in the name of freedom and equality. The civil rights movement was a long series of events to bring full civil rights and equality under the law to all Americans. The movement has had a lasting impact on American society, in its tactics, the increased social and legal acceptance of civil rights.
When will blacks realize that they will live better pursuing business over politics? While most civil rights leaders became politicians, Thomas sets an excellent example of a black in business. The business of business is business and the goal of business is to earn a profit in the provision of goods and services. The business of government is service — well-managed, one hopes, and not wasteful, but never at a profit. There is no such thing as government money. Governments have no money; they have only what they take from citizens, either in taxes or inflation. And if government accrues profit it can only have done so by taxing too much or eroding the value of the citizens’ income and savings — in either case doing harm, not good, to the people.
In the U.S., existing small businesses comprise 99 percent of all employer firms, employ nearly half of the workforce, and account for more than 60 percent of the private sector’s net new jobs. Small-business owners such as Thomas drive innovation, build communities and better the quality of life for citizens. We need more such leaders.
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via Busxchng@his.com.