To me and countless others, Francena B. Thomas was a woman who stood heads above many in the Miami-Dade County community.
On Friday, Sept. 7, at Frederick Douglass Elementary School in Overtown, the new Francena B. Thomas Journalism Academy was dedicated, and a portrait of her painted by artist C.J. Latimore, was unveiled.
Thomas died in July 2015. The event brought together many of her friends who spoke of what she had meant to them, and also some of those she had mentored. Their words brought tears and laughter.
It was a wonderful occasion, born in the heart of one of Thomas’ long-time friends, Miami-Dade County School Board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.
Attorney Yolanda Cash Jackson served as the mistress of ceremonies and said that Thomas had been a mentor and a blessing to her. Ann McNeil read from a book of personal thoughts that Thomas had given to her years ago. Maud Newbold spoke of their friendship as sorority sisters and how much she had helped her to become a better educator. “She was one of a kind, and well ahead of her time,” Newbold said.
Thomas was married to Joseph Nick Thomas. They were the parents of three: daughter Nifretta, and sons Joseph Nicholas and Nigel. She survived her husband and son Joseph Nicholas.
Thomas’ granddaughter Kiana V. Thomas — who looks so much like a young Francena that the audience gasped when she stood — spoke lovingly of Thomas at the ceremony. “I am who I am today, because of my grandmother,” she said. A Florida A&M University graduate like her grandmother, Kiana, 32, came for the ceremony from Virginia Beach, where she is a corporate property manager.
I remember Thomas as a teenager. She was a couple of grades ahead of me and I looked up to her. She was somebody you wanted to be like. She lived a few blocks east of where we lived in the Liberty Square Housing Project, and had to pass my house on the way to Dorsey High School, where she attended. We were friendly rivals because I attended Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown.
Thomas was tall and pretty and had an attitude that seemed to say, “Look out world, here I come.” She was a writer (for years, she wrote a Miami Times column under the name “Dora Lee”), and hosted a WSVN-Channel 7 television show called “Perspectives.” She also was the host of a radio show and was an artist, a poet and a seamstress. She spoke Spanish fluently.
As our careers blossomed, we stayed in contact, sharing ideas over lunch or dinner. She often encouraged me in my position as the first African-American woman reporter for the Miami Herald. And as such, I was on the selection committee when she was chosen as one of the first black administrators at Florida International University, serving as director of Minority Affairs and Women’s Concerns. . When I learned she had the job, I was as happy as anyone could be.
Thomas left that position years later to work closely with Capt. Lonnie Lawrence as an administrator with the Miami-Dade Police Department. She held that position until she retired in 2001.
Knowing how vibrant and outgoing Thomas had been all her life, it was hard to accept, when around 2003, it became apparent that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
It is fitting that Douglass Elementary, where Yolanda Ellis is principal, is housing the journalism academy. Thomas had been a teacher there for many years, before joining the FIU staff. Her daughter worked there until recently when she left to start her own business, K & S Media Consultants.
The idea of renaming and dedicating the school’s media center the Francena B.. Thomas Journalism Academy started over a breakfast of salmon croquettes, grits and biscuits in Nifretta’s home with Bendross-Mindingall. At the time, Nifretta was a reading specialist at Douglas.
“The renaming and unveiling ceremony was Auntie Dorothy’s idea. She decided that day that we should do something in Mom’s memory,” Nifretta said..
Bendross-Mindingall contacted artist C.J. Latimore, whose life had also been touched by Thomas, and asked him to paint a portrait of her to hang in the journalism academy.
“I was more than happy to be a part if the project,” Latimore said. ”I wanted to pay tribute to her in a prestigious and permanent artistic way, because she meant so much to me as a personal friend. She always inspired me with her favorite quote, ‘each one one, reach one’. She used to say that to me all the time.”
“In painting her portrait I actually felt her love and her positive character. You couldn’t be in her presence without being inspired and empowered,” Latimore said.”
”I was more than elated [about the occasion], Nifretta said. “I didn’t know that my mom had touched so many lives. I was moved beyond words at the number of people who came to the dedication ceremony and shared stories about my mom. Many were stories I didn’t know anything about.”
“There were several women who stuck with me when my mother got sick: M. Athalie Range, Barbara Carey Shuler, Barbara Howard, Ann McNeil, Lynn Finster, Congresswoman Carrie P. Meek, and you, Auntie Bea [that’s what she calls me]. There were also two men who were there for me: Dewey Knight III and Jasper Johnson. I didn’t want for anything. I will never forget that. We don’t seem to have those kind of ties anymore.”
Nifretta said she was so touched by the outpouring of love during her mom’s illness that she asked Carey-Shuler, “Why are you all so kind to me? She said to me, ‘Because if the tables were turned, your mom would be there for us.’“
Day of Peace
The community is invited to celebrate the International Day of Peace by gathering around the Peace Pole at 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 21, at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr.
The worldwide commemoration started in 1981 by the United Nations as an effort to strengthen the ideas of peace among nations, said Marjorie York, a peace activist who conceived the idea of a permanent peace pole for related activities to be held.
This year’s theme will observe the 70th anniversary of the universal Declaration of Human Rights and is being presented by Ayuda, an organization founded in 1977 to help improve the lives of children and families who are underserved, and/or at risk in education, life skills training and programs that support self-sufficiency, York said. De Anne Connolly Graham is the board chairwoman.
The free program will include several activities, including a peace assembly, peace march, youth dialogue, musical performances by Miami Beach Senior High School students, and city and county proclamations.
The Rev. Michael K. Bouie, pastor of Mount Hermon AME Church in Miami Gardens, will host the 128th Southern Region, 11th Episcopal District Annual Conference, Sept. 24 to 29 at the Hilton Miami Downtown Hotel.
Bishop Adam Jefferson Richardson Jr., is the Presiding Prelate, 11th Episcopal District, which includes 64 churches and spans 13 counties in Florida and the Bahamas.
The annual sermon will be preached by the Rev. Willie J. Cook, pastor of the Historic Greater Bethel A.M.E. Church on Tuesday, Sept. 25. The worship services are open to the public. For service times and other events, call Sara J. Carson at 305-76-3544.
The Historic Hampton House will launch a new film and discussion series at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, with a special screening of the independent film “Daughters of the Dust,” written, directed and produced by Julie Dash.
The screening is part of the Unity Boulevard Film Series, which is held the third Thursday of each month at the recently restored Hampton House, 4240 NW 27th Ave.
Coming programs will feature films from a range of genres, styles and periods and will deal with issues such as immigration, race, cultural change and gender, and will provide opportunities for lively post-screening discussions.
Admission is $10 at the door and free to students with student ID. Discounted advance tickets are $5 each and are available at historichamptonhouse.eventbrite.com.
Congratulations to Evangelist E. Betty Forbes Richardson, who will commemorate her first preaching anniversary today during special services at The Church of God Tabernacle (True Holiness), 1351 NW 67th St. in Liberty City.
Richardson is the wife of Bishop Walter H. Richardson, pastor and overseer of the church.
Free Yom Kippur services
Chabad in downtown Coral Gables will hold Yom Kippur services, free to the community, at the Hotel Colonnade, 180 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables.
Kol Nidrei will be observed 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18. At 10 a.m. Wednesday, Yom Kippur services continue followed at 12:30 p.m. with Yizkor (remembering the departed).
Tickets and membership are not needed, said Chabad co-director Rabbi Chany Stolik. “All are welcome, free of charge, regardless of background or affiliation.” Seat reservations are required, however, by visiting ChabadGables.com/HH2018.