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.