Family's bad fortunes propelled Thomas to better life

July 07, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- To see where the life of Clarence Thomas might have ended up, one must journey to where it began, out on the tidal flats of the Moon River just south of town, where marsh grasses bend gently to breezes that smell faintly of brine and mud.

Here at a small community called Pinpoint, little has changed from June 1948 when the man President Bush has nominated for the Supreme Court was born. The shack of a crab house where his mother picked meat for a nickel a pound still stands by the murky water. Some 30 yards inland is where he first lived, on a homesite tucked in the shade of majestic live oaks drooping gray and ragged with Spanish moss. And it is there he might have stayed and foundered, sinking into the poor but tranquil lifestyle as firmly as a clam burrowed in the ooze.

But at an early age his family's bad fortunes forced him into town, to the home of a grandfather who was both optimist and enforcer. The grandfather, in turn, thrust the young boy into the arms of the Roman Catholic Church, with its rigid schools of nurturing, knuckle-swatting nuns.

Now, with Mr. Thomas on the verge of becoming an arbiter of laws and values for the entire nation as a justice of the highest court, his upbringing is back at center stage, because the same forces that helped boost him to prominence also shaped the strong, outspoken opinions that could make his confirmation hearing an angry, bitter struggle.

Mr. Thomas' life got off to a slow, shaky start, his mother, Leola Williams, says:

"The midwife shaked him and he wouldn't cry, and she spanked him and he wouldn't cry. She said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do,' and she shaked him again, and he just yawned, and that's all. I said, 'You're a lazy boy.' "

He was the second child in the family, following his sister, Emma Mae, into the world by a year. By the time he was 17 months old, a younger brother, Myers, had come along, but his father had already left for parts unknown.

For six years they moved from home to home in Pinpoint, first living with friends and then sharing a room -- all four of them -- at an aunt's house. His mother then found a job in town, which meant more pay but more hours away from the children, and a bus ride every morning at 7. Something had to be done.

"I first talked to my Dad [about taking in the two boys] and he

didn't give me no answer, so I talked to my Mom," Mrs. Williams said. "She was tickled to death." So, the boys headed to their grandparents' home on East Broad Street. Their sister stayed in Pinpoint with her aunt. Mr. Thomas said later that it was the most important move of his life, and the vast difference it made baffles him still.

Today, his sister still lives in Pinpoint, in a small, poorly kept,

two-room house that is filled with clutter. She laments that a neighbor's home has now been broken into eight times in the past year by cocaine addicts. Like her mother, she ended up working in the neighborhood crab house, paid by the pound, though she now works in the kitchens of Savannah's Candler Hospital. Her mother works there, too, pulling the morning shift as a nurse's assistant.

In a 1983 interview, Mr. Thomas pondered their divergent paths as he mused over such subjects as affirmative action and programs designed to help blacks, wondering aloud whether they can ever help people who get the wrong start in life.

"What is it that made me different from my sister?" he asked. "We come from the same place, the same genes, same mother and father, same circumstances, but raised by different relatives." He pointed out that he and his brother earned college degrees but added, "My sister? AFDC [welfare]. Four kids. She's a good person, a super person. But she's different. She isn't educated."

For his mother, the move meant that a different relationship developed with her sons. Even their weekend visits soon began to grow farther apart when her own mother "got so attached to the children." Besides, "It was family taking care of them, and I knowed I needed help, and their father weren't no good. . . . My kids and I got along like sister and brother instead of like mother and boys."

If Myers Anderson was at first reluctant about taking in his grandsons, he soon took to the duty with a zeal characterizing everything he did. He began working on them as he had upon his home, a solid one-story structure he'd built piece by piece, right down to making each of the concrete blocks.

His conversation around the house was loaded with the sort of homilies that children of the Depression era are prone to hear in their sleep: "He used to always say that there was no problem elbow grease can't solve," Mr. Thomas has said.

"Then he'd say things like, 'Old Man Can't is dead. I helped bury him.' " Then he'd go out and work, almost around the clock, delivering ice, fuel oil, coal and wood.

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