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George Washington of Surry County, Virginia: Moses Thomas Revealed!

by Eve Gregory
man Note: The following is based on an article in the Sussex-Surry Dispatch from 1968. Neither the date nor the author's name appear on the copy. Thanks to Judy Jones for providing photocopies of the article and photograph.

Lorena Leath, Surry's own award-winning art photographer, made a beautiful portrait of an elderly man smoking a corncob pipe. The photograph was entitled "George Washington". Whether this title was a bit of whimsy or simple mislabelling, we now know that his real name was Moses Thomas. He lived in Dendron and at age ninety-two he was a participant in the Green Thumb Project at Chippokes Plantation. The Green Thumbers worked there three days a week cutting down trees, clearing underbrush, making picnic tables and beautifying roadsides. Green Thumbers were paid from a combination of state and federal grants in an effort to give older people useful work for which they could earn a paycheck.

Mr. Thomas said he was born 20 October 1876 to Solomon and Matilda Taylor Thomas. He was reared with seven brothers and sisters, and in 1968 was still looking after his older sister as well as he could. He said, "Dad didn't send the boys to school. Just the girls and later two boys. We all had to work, and I have worked ever since I can remember."

He learned to read and write from teachers who boarded at the same place he did when he was working for Surry Lumber Company. He paid the teachers for books and tutoring. He worked for Surry Lumber Company for over twenty years, sawing logs in the woods with a handsaw for two to three dollars a day. Later he learned carpentry from George Noise, saying "A lot of homes were built by me". Some of them were still standing on Oak Avenue in Dendron in 1968.

Thomas's career included work as a crater for a Hopewell company that shipped supplies overseas during World War II. After that, he retired to a one-room house in Dendron rented from Clayborn Smith for $5.00 per month. He had lived there for thirty years in 1968. "It used to be $2.50 and the place was in better shape then, "Thomas said. His little home had no electricity or water and was in need of repair. "Promises, promises, that's all I hear." He drew water from the well of his neighbor, Lyster Chambliss.

In addition to his Green Thumb employment, he tilled a garden with a hand plow and sold a little produce nearby. His personal economies included cooking his lunch of cornbread on an old woodstove by the light of a kerosene lamp. On work days at Chippokes, the same lunch went with him in a paper bag. He had cooked for as many as twelve people during his Surry Lumber Company days. His only claimed vice was chewing tobacco, although he alluded to having a little toddy on occasion in the past. He also sometimes smoked the corncob pipe seen in the Leath portrait and grew a beard in cold weather to keep warm and avoid the bother of shaving.

He had been married, but his wife left him after twelve years. As there were no children, he never considered marriage again, "but I had plenty of girlfriends". When asked if he was afraid to live alone, he said, "I really don't live by myself; I have somebody to stay with me every night...the Lord". Indeed, it appears that the Lord looked after him very well. He had not been sick during the latter fifty years of his life and was still alert and able in his ninety-second year. He was found to be in perfect health that year as a result of his physical examination by Dr. Sutherland in preparation for his Green Thumb job. Dr. Sutherland told him he was "going to live to be 100 or more".
Moses Thomas

About politics he said, "What's the use of voting? They are going to have their way anyhow".

"There's a lot of foolishness going on today. Men should have more sense than shooting a rocket to the moon. God rules the world. He made it, he can destroy and defend it. Man thinks he can make it, but he can't."

"I was about fourteen years old when I was converted and joined Jerusalem Baptist Church... I have enjoyed living, don't look back, don't look for trouble, and don't want to be young again. I'm satisfied with what I'm doing now."

Thanks to Debra Taylor, Mr. Thomas's niece, for this great photo!

~~~oo0oo~~~
Transcription of the cemetery monument in Booker T. Washington Cemetery:

Moses Thompson
Oct. 20, 1875
Jan. 7, 1975

Photograph by Judy Jones. Thank you, Judy!

tombstone

In an attempt to clarify details of Mr. Thomas's life, I looked for his name in the U.S. Censuses. The results were not altogether satisfactory, as some of the census information is contradictory. This is not unusual, however, as census recorders wrote down what they thought people told them.

The 1930 census records Moses Thomas, a Negro man fifty years of age living in Dendron and working as a carpenter. He was living as a lodger in the rented house of Moses Walker, a laborer in the sawmill. Both said they were born in Virginia as were their parents, and both could read and write. Neither claimed military service.

According to the 1920 census, Moses Thomas, a married Black man forty-three years of age, lived in a rented house in Dendron with his wife, Estelle, and worked as a laborer in the sawmill. His wife, a Black female aged thirty-three years, lived with him and did not work outside their home. His father, Solomon Thomas, a Black man aged seventy-one years, also lived with them. While Moses and Estelle could both read and write, his widowed father could not. All three were born in Virginia as were all their parents.

The 1910 census presented a problem. No Moses Thomas appeared in the index as living in Surry County. There was one in Petersburg, but by following him through the 1920 and 1930 censuses, where he was shown to have ended up insane in Central State Hospital, it became apparent that he was not the Surry man.

There was, however, a Moses Thompson shown in the 1910 census in Surry. He lived in Blackwater District. He was the head of a household in Dendron, thirty-four years of age and living with his wife Estelle. He was farming and living in a rented house. She was twenty-one years old and they had been married three years. There were no children. It appears that this was the same man recorded in 1920 as Moses Thomas married to Estelle Thomas.

I did not find a Moses Thomas living in Surry in the 1900 census index. Neither did I find a Solomon Thomas. There was, however, a "Solomon Thompson" aged fifty-two years living in Guilford District. Nothing useful showed up in the 1890 index, but in 1880 Solomon Thomas appeared in the index, living in Surry in Guilford District. He was a married Black man, thirty-five years of age, working at a sawmill. He could not read or write and neither could his wife. Her name was recorded as Maria, although Moses Thomas said later that his mother's name was Matilda. She was twenty-eight in 1880. They had four children then, Henry aged five years, Thomas aged four years, Edward aged two years, and Florence aged two months. There is no mention of Moses, who should have been about four years old, if he was born in 1876 as he said later. It is possible that the four-year old "Thomas Thomas" was in fact Moses Thomas, whose name was recorded incorrectly.

1880 census

Solomon Thomas also appeared in the index to the 1870 census. He was living in Smithfield. He was a single Black man aged twenty-six and working on a steamboat. He lived in the household of Jno. E. White, a twenty-seven year-old white man who also worked on the steamboat. Others in the household included John's wife Maggie White, their infant son William, twenty-five year-old Hill James, a Black man who also worked on the steamboat, and George Briggs, a twenty-three year-old Mulatto man whose occupation was described as "book". Everyone in the household had been born in Virginia.

187- census

Time did not permit further pursuit of the Thomas family, but it might be possible to trace them further in earlier censuses and court and tax records. If those who have more information about Mr. Thomas will bring it to my attention, I'll gladly add it here.
E-mail Eve Gregory


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