The life of the former slave Thomas Thomas provides a glimpse into the history of the free black community that developed in Springfield before the Civil War. During the mid-nineteenth century, Springfield was home to ardent abolitionists, and served as a station on the Underground Railroad through which escaping slaves passed on their way to freedom in the North. Though interaction across racial lines was mostly limited to the city's abolitionists, a substantial African-American community developed in the city, and ambitious individuals like Thomas grasped the opportunities available to them.
Thomas Thomas' journey to Springfield was atypical, in that he arrived not as a runaway but as a freeman. After purchasing his freedom from his Maryland master for $400, and apparently familiar with Springfield's reputation as a haven for escaping and former slaves, Thomas settled in the city in the late 1830s. He later found work at a warehouse run by the abolitionist John Brown, with whom he developed a friendship and who shared with Thomas his plans for invading the South in order to end slavery. In the early 1850s, Thomas joined Brown's racially-integrated organization, the League of Gileadites, devoted to preventing the capture of runaway slaves.
For unknown reasons, Thomas moved west in 1853. During a stay in Illinois he met the future president Abraham Lincoln, and accumulated the financial resources that allowed him to return to Massachusetts on the eve of the Civil War. Back in Springfield, Thomas opened a restaurant on Main Street for eleven years later moving it to 59 Worthington Street. Thomas's restaurant stayed open for another twenty-one years after the move.
Thomas Thomas' political activism and his success as a businessman in the free black community of Springfield illustrate the diversity in African-American lives during the nineteenth century. Some did escape the horrors of slavery in the South, by purchasing their freedom or by fleeing with the assistance of abolitionists working on the Underground Railroad. The city of Springfield fostered an environment of cross-racial cooperation in the fight against slavery, and tolerated a thriving community of free blacks. Despite entrenched racial attitudes that prohibited recognition of absolute equality and prevented true integration, an ambitious man like Thomas Thomas had the chance to make his own way.
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