“If there is going to be racial justice, there has to be social action.” – Dr. Charles W. Thomas II, Eugene Register- Guard, 1964
Keeping with our Black History Month series that highlights the work of historian Herman L. Brame, we present psychologist Dr. Charles W. Thomas II, who was part of the first group of African American professors to teach at the University of Oregon, which began the integration of the faculty in the early 1960s. Although the campus and Eugene community did not possess a diverse population, he joined the UO faculty because the campus was pleasant and intellectually stimulating in regards to debates addressing the Vietnam War and civil rights. Dr. Charles W. Thomas II was an active member for racial equality on the UO campus, Eugene community, and wherever he went.
Thomas was born on April 24, 1926 in Davidsonville, Maryland and, like many other young African American men, he served in the US military during World War II and then attended college afterwards. Thomas attended Morgan State College in Maryland and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1954. The following year after graduation, he worked as an intern in clinical psychology at Cleveland Receiving Hospital and received his Master of Arts degree at John Carroll University in 1955. After acquiring his masters, Thomas worked in vocational guidance and rehabilitation in Cleveland, Ohio and in 1961 completed his Ph.D in developmental psychology from Case Western Reserve. Afterward, he briefly lectured at John Carroll University for two years, while also serving as the Director of the Sheltered Workshop Project at Highland View Cuyahoga Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Over the course of this work, Thomas was able to make significant contributions to groundbreaking efforts that promoted biomedical engineering, sociology, aging and rehabilitation counseling. He is also credited for developing the THOMSTAT screening technique.
In 1963, Dr. Thomas left the Midwest to take an Assistant Professor position at the School of Education at University of Oregon specializing in rehabilitation counseling. As stated earlier, he was part of the first group of African American professors to become faculty members at the UO. During his time at the UO, segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace was invited by the University of Oregon Student Body President Phil Sherburne to speak in support of racial segregation and his thoughts against the Civil Rights Bill. As a response, many community members and organizations protested. Reverend Ralph Moore and the Greater Portland Council of Churches, and the chairman of the national Congress of Racial Equality Floyd McKissick spoke on campus against the hate speech that was occurring on the University of Oregon campus. In addition to social justice climate, during Thomas’ tenure, efforts were made to create more cultural diversity of campus. As a result, African American performers such as comedian and activist Dick Gregory, singer Johnny Mathis, and musicians Louis Armstrong and Les McCann performed at the University of Oregon.
Along with his profession, Dr. Thomas spoke out against discrimination and advocated for racial equality and diversity in the Eugene community as well. He participated on a panel for the Fellowship Luncheon of the Eugene Council, United Church Women where he discussed the fear that many African Americans have when moving into “hostile white neighborhoods.” He was also incredibly vocal about housing discrimination and was quoted in the Eugene Register-Guard in 1964 saying: “I have many problems my colleagues don’t have, and don’t care to have them.” He believed he was paying more to rent a house than his white colleagues because he was black. In addition, Dr. Thomas felt he and his wife were more “exotic” than average campus tokens since they were the only African American faculty couple.
Despite his successes in Eugene, Dr. Thomas began feeling he was not helping the African American community to the best of his ability. He called Eugene a “sterile” environment where he lived comfortably while other African Americans were experiencing daily injustices. The Los Angeles Watts Riots from August 11th to 17th in 1965 further motivated him to consider moving and he eventually did so in 1966. He believed that African American professionals needed to do more to assist inner-city African American communities. He accepted an Associate Professor of Community Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for the 1966/67 school year. While there, he was a major proponent for the development of the Watts Health Center and led the creation of a comprehensive health program. He also served as the center’s psychologist and education director. During this period, Watts was enduring violent riots and continuous FBI surveillance and Dr. Thomas sought ways to contribute to the betterment of the community.
While attending an American Psychological Association meeting in San Francisco, CA in 1968, Dr. Thomas and other African American psychologists formed the Association of Black Psychologists. Three years later, the Black Students Psychological Association presented him with the title, “Father of Black Psychology.” Despite his numerous accomplishments as an activist and his honorable title, Dr. Thomas continued to seek other opportunities to serve African American communities. He eventually became a professor of Urban and Rural Studies at the University of California San Diego in 1971 and would remain there until his death in 1990.
According to novelist Sherley Anne Williams, Dr. Thomas’ voice was “deep and mellifluous, full of resonance and conviction, it always made an impression.” In addition, she shared that she used to tell him, “If I had a voice like that, I would rule the world.” In response, he would always say, “I have no interest in ruling the world, only in healing it.” Unfortunately, Dr. Charles W. Thomas died September 29, 1990 from multiple stab wounds from an unknown assailant while parked in his car in East San Diego. Despite his demise, Thomas made a huge impact on society with his participation in social justice, his community organizing, and the strong example he set as an African American professor and psychologist.
Information for this article was collected from the following source:
- Herman L. Brame, “Dr. Charles W. Thomas II: Father of Black Psychology,” Portland, Oregon: 2015, BF109.T42 B73 2015, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
- Michael Granberry, “Pioneering Psychology Professor Mourned,” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1990.
Student Research Assistant