Today in Sanford History (TSH), Robert B. “Bob” Thomas Jr., the first black citizen to be elected to office in Sanford and Seminole County, died of a ruptured appendix at the age of 79. It was March 30, 2008.
Thomas was the youngest of 4 children born to Robert B. and Lessie Thomas. All four siblings were delivered by their grandmother while living on the Meriwether farm in the Midway/Canaan City community.
The family were farm laborers and money was tight, so in 1944 a 15-year-old Thomas dropped out of school, faked his age and joined the military. He did his tour of duty, and returned to Sanford to continue his education as an 18-year-old 7th-grader.
“People would tell him he was too old to be with all those kids, but he didn’t care,” his daughter Monica Thomas told the Orlando Sentinel in 2008. “He said he was doing what he was supposed to do.”
Thomas would graduate from Crooms High School, attended Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, where he played football, and earned his Batchelor’s degree from Florida A&M University in 1959.
Thomas worked for 31 years in Seminole County Public Schools as a truant officer, substitute teacher and juvenile counselor.
In 1984, he ran for District 2 Sanford City Commissioner and won a 3-person race by a landslide. Thomas received 434 votes, while Larry Blair had 165, and C.B. “Coach” Franklin finished with 75.
Thomas served on the city commission for 12 years. Instead of seeking a 4th term as commissioner in 1996, he ran for Sanford mayor, the first black citizen to do so.
The mayor’s race saw 8 people run for the office. Thomas led all candidates by earning 1,045 votes. However, because no candidate earned more than 50% of the vote, Thomas and Larry Dale faced each other in a run-off election, which Dale won 2,149 to 1,543.
“I always looked at my Uncle Bobby as my own personal Martin Luther King,” said his niece, Karen Faison of Rochester, N.Y. told the Sentinel in 2008. “He did so much for the black community and for people in general.”