Sammie Thomas, leader in church restoration, dies

March 18, 1991

Services for Sammie Lee Thomas Jr., a driving force in the effort to restore a historic black church in the Somerset County town of Oriole, will be at 5 p.m. today at the Wesley Temple United Methodist Church in Salisbury.

Mr. Thomas, who was 30, died of respiratory failure Thursday at Howard University Hospital in Washington.

Born in Salisbury, Mr. Thomas was a 1979 graduate of Wicomico Senior High School.

He attended the University of Maryland Eastern Shore before transferring to Howard University, where he received a bachelor of science degree in 1984.

He worked for the District of Columbia's department of consumer regulatory affairs and received the Theodore Hagans Jr. Public Service Award in 1989.

Mr. Thomas belonged to a number of black historical and cultural organizations, including the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the Schomburg Society for the Preservation of Black Culture.

He helped to found the Oriole Historical Society, which was working to restore the St. James Methodist Episcopal Church.

The group, which acquired St. James and the former church hall last year, has applied for a $36,670 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust to stop the building's decay.

Mr. Thomas first saw St. James in 1989 on a visit to the village where his forebears had lived. He was immediately impressed by the church's simple beauty, despite its weathered siding, missing glass panes, crumbling plaster and gaping hole in the roof, and he was determined to save the building.

He saw the church as a symbol of a rural black community's strength that deserves to be preserved.

"Our ancestors gave us an example of how to build a community. Maybe that's something we need to apply today in our own lives -- to be more community-minded, to reach out a little more, to put ourselves second," Mr. Thomas said in a recent article in The Sun.

Mr. Thomas is survived by his parents, Sammie Lee Thomas Sr. and Frances H. Thomas, of Salisbury; a sister, Sherrie Nickens of Eden; a brother, Terrance Thomas of Salisbury; his maternal grandparents, Viola and Goodsel Harmon of Fruitland; and his paternal grandparents, Margret Johnson, of Dalton, Ga., and Flora Holloway of Salisbury.

The family suggested that donations be made to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne or the Howard University Scholarship Fund.

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