Francena Bruton Thomas’ daughter Nifretta remembers hearing First Lady Rosalynn Carter and meeting Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, as they spoke in favor of passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Attending the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977 made quite an impression on the young Nifretta, thanks to Francena, an English teacher at R. Moton Elementary School and community activist, who died at 79 on July 11.
“My mom was a big-time activist for that,” Nifretta Thomas said. The star power was impressive. The opening ceremony speakers alone also included First Ladies Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson, activists Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, All in the Family star Jean Stapleton and poet Maya Angelou.
“I remember coming home and writing an article about my experience at the ERA conference for the Miami Times. I was only 13,” said Thomas, now 51, who works in marketing and outreach for Southern Florida Minority Supplier Development Council — influenced by her mother.
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“She was so supportive of my education and making sure I saw plays and operas,” she said. “I saw my first play on Broadway at 15: Ain’t Misbehavin’. That was my favorite 8-track. She bought it for me after the play.”
Francena Thomas’ work at that national ERA conference would surprise no one who knew of the Miami-born woman’s passion for her community and equality.
Thomas carried that mindset through her 1953 graduation from Dorsey High School in Miami, where she earned a scholarship to Florida A&M University. There, she earned her bachelor of science degree in education in 1958.
Thomas served as director of minority affairs at Florida International University where she was an urban conflict specialist in the 1980s. She headed the Dade County Public School system's Dropout Prevention Advisory Council. She was also vice chairwoman of North Miami Beach-based Oceanmark Bank, which aimed to support businesses in the Brownsville neighborhood.
“We have this grand idea. We can't fund multimillion-dollar projects, but we can do some things for the community to revitalize itself,” Thomas said in a 1996 Miami Herald article.
In 1993, Thomas, who was married to Overtown businessman Joseph Thomas, joined the Miami-Dade Police Department in a community liaison position as a project coordinator.
Two years later, while hosting WSVN Channel 7’s weekly Perspectives show on community issues, Thomas trained students statewide in nonviolence education for the Florida Martin Luther King Institute for Non-Violence, a role in which she served until her retirement in 2001.
That passion, her daughter believes, was ingrained early. “It came from her need to make sure that everybody had an equal share and opportunity. She wanted to see a community where if you got up on the top of the ladder you would reach back and help someone else climb back up.”
In addition to her daughter, Thomas is survived by her son Nigel Thomas, a cameraman for ABC’s Shark Tank, her brothers Joseph and Alvin Bruton, sisters Charlotte Bruton Griggs, Sharron Ellis and Vickie Kirby, five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. She was preceded in death by her husband and her son, Joseph Nicholas Thomas.
Services will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at Range Funeral Home, 5720 NW 17th Ave., Miami and the funeral will be at 11 a.m. Monday at New Birth Cathedral, 2300 NW 135th St., Miami.
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