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Harlem icon Carrie McHenry Thomas passes

10/24/2013, 11:27 a.m.
Carrie M. Thomas turned 100 years old on Tuesday, Sept. 10 in Harlem, on Thursday, Oct. 3, she passed peacefully
Carrie Thomas with Juan Baez, her best friend of 48 years, at the opening of Harlem Hospital Center’s pavilion in September 2012

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Carrie Thomas

Born in Texas on Sept. 10, 1913, Carrie M. Thomas turned 100 years old on Tuesday, Sept. 10 in Harlem. On Thursday, Oct. 3, she passed peacefully and among friends at Harlem Hospital Center. A memorial service will take place at the Harlem Hospital Center auditorium on Saturday, Nov. 9 at noon. All who knew Thomas are invited to attend to celebrate her life.

At a young age, she married Richard Thomas, CPA, popular owner of a check-cashing establishment in Harlem. With this union came her entrenchment into the Harlem that we know today. Thomas always said that her life became interesting in 1944 when she began “ringing doorbells.” She loved going door to door to do surveys and to register her neighbors and the Harlem community to vote.

Thomas worked on civic and election campaigns at a time when Blacks were becoming politically active, including campaigns with Hulan Jack, the first Black borough president in New York City, coming from Harlem; Constance Baker Motley, the first female borough president; Fred Samuels, district leader and king maker; Dr. Arthur Logan, founder of a private Black hospital in Harlem; Molly Moon, philanthropic leader of the National Urban League; Adam Clayton Powell Jr., representative and minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church; and Lloyd Dickens, realtor and father of Council Member Inez Dickens. Thomas knew and worked with each of them. She was also credited with finding individuals both interested and qualified for new jobs that were opening up to Blacks in New York City.

Thomas spoke fondly of the many people who came to her house and sat around her dinner table to discuss politics and the state of Black America. She knew many we now recognize as belonging to the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, including Paul Robeson, Charles White, Aaron Douglass, Richard Wright, Clifford Alexander, Ronald H. Brown and A. Philip Randolph.

She worked for the New York City Parks Department as the first Black employee, working directly for Robert Moses in the Parks Arsenal on Fifth Avenue, where planning for all park expansions took place. The times were historical in both the expansion and controversy because the city took over many private places to create public spaces and highways. She retired from the job in 1975 after almost 40 years of service.

Thomas was always a fierce advocate for Sydenham Hospital (now the Renaissance Health Care Network) and for Harlem Hospital Center. She was instrumental in the naming of the Ronald H. Brown Ambulatory Care Center at Harlem Hospital. She was instrumental in bringing the Tower Café first to Harlem and now throughout the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. She was an important advocate for “saving” the important Works Progress Administration murals housed at Harlem Hospital and for mural restoration. Thomas has been a constant figure of the Harlem Hospital Auxiliary for decades and was president from 1987-1990. She was also a member of the Renaissance Community Advisory Board for decades.

Thomas was a donor to Black charities and civic organizations, including Harlem Hospital Center, the Schomburg Center for Research, the New York Urban League, Harlem School for the Arts and the National Office of the NAACP.

She had an arsenal of loyal friends from all walks of life and gathered over 80 years of service to her beloved community of Harlem. She lived surrounded by the love and admiration of all who knew her and will be remembered for her love of Harlem, her civic advocacy, the clarity of her memories, her quick smile and easy laughter, and her love of life.