John Thomas

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Winning Nomination

I have been working on a documentary film of John Thomas for some time, and I premiered a preview at the History Center last year. He is from north Minneapolis, and he became the first African American to run an international organization. He worked in the displacement camps after World War ll, and he was in charge of operations at the Austrian-Hungary border during the 1956 revolution. He also ran the U.S. Cuban Refugee Program for President Kennedy, and the U.S. Vietnam Refugee Program for President Johnson. Later in his career, he helped evacuate the millions displaced by Idi Amin. It is estimated that he helped save the lives of nearly four million people during the course of the cold war. Born in 1907, he held a Masters degree from the University of Minnesota, and he was a leader at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House in Minneapolis. I have much more information, but this is truly a story of heroism, hope, and inspiration about an unknown but significant Minnesotan.
~Mick Caouette, Stillwater, MN

Runner-up Nominations

John Thomas was born on the north side of Minneapolis in 1909. His father was the son of a slave and Native American woman and his mother was a Swedish immigrant. He became a boys' worker at Phyllis Wheatley, received a Master's degree at the U of M, taught in the Jim Crow south and then became a captain in the US Army during WWII. It was then that his career started.

In his time as a soldier, Thomas saw the devastation wreaked by war. This experience transformed him into an early pioneer in international relief efforts. As part of the Marshall Plan, Thomas ran displaced persons camps in Germany and relocated thousands of people, including many Jews he snuck into Israel despite a British boycott. Later, he helped to rescue 200,000 Hungarian refugees when Russia invaded their country. Thomas went on to direct JFK's Cuban Refugee Program and President Johnson's Vietnam Refugee Program. At the end of his career, he was named director of the International Committee for European Migration, making him the first African-American to head up an international organization. It is estimated that John Thomas saved nearly four million people during his life.
~Danielle Dart




His compassion knew no boundaries

John Thomas was born in north Minneapolis in 1907, his mother was a Swedish immigrant and his father was the son of a slave. "His early world," writes nominator Mick Caouette, "was filled with people who were integrated by the boundaries of segregation--immigrant families with names like Piazza, Finkelstein, and Johnson. His early world consisted of streetcars, gaslights, and outdoor bathrooms in subzero weather. He was poor but hardly knew it."

Thomas served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he joined the newly formed United Nations' massive effort to rebuild Europe. He arrived in Germany in 1945. "I was shocked to see that everything I had heard was true," he later said of his visits to internment camps and devastated communities. It was in Germany that Thomas first helped create systems for providing international relief. Along with workers from European countries, he ran displaced-persons camps throughout Germany and relocated thousands of people.

In 1956, Thomas was called to the Austrian-Hungarian border during a Russian invasion. Wading in waist-high water with Russian soldiers close at hand, he helped 200,000 Hungarian refugees cross the border into Austria to safety, one at a time. In 1963, President John Kennedy appointed him director of the Cuban Refugee Program, resulting in the resettlement of 30,000 Cuban families. Three years later, President Lyndon Johnson named him director of the U.S. Vietnam Refugee Program. Thomas settled nearly five million people before and after the 1968 Tet Offensive.

In 1969, John Thomas became the first African American to head an international organization--the International Committee for European Migration, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. As director, he came to the aid of the two million Ugandans who were forced to flee by the regime of Idi Amin and was involved in every major world refugee flow until his retirement in 1978.

John Thomas died in New York City in 2002. At his memorial service in Minneapolis, Mick Caouette spoke: "It is estimated that the kid from the north side, who had limited opportunities but never acknowledged his own limitations, helped to save as many as six million people during the forty years of the Cold War. In the words of his friend, Senator Ted Kennedy, 'You have embraced the cares of the world's deprived and dispossessed as your own. Your compassionate commitment will always be an inspiration to us all.'"

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