Clarence Thomas attends hometown museum dedication; source of funding for institution prompts questions


Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas looks over the Georgia Historical Society Pin Point Community marker as a young boy reads the inscription during an unveiling ceremony Saturday at the Sweetfield of Eden Baptist Church in Pin Point, Ga. (RICHARD BURKHART/SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS)
November 19, 2011

The Clarence Thomas Interchange on Interstate 95 leads eventually to the Clarence Thomas wing of Savannah’s Carnegie Library, which is near the Clarence Thomas Center for Historical Preservation at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

But Saturday, the Supreme Court justice was 12 more miles down the road, past the city where he grew up and back to the sliver of a place where he was born, among the moss-draped live oaks and golden-brown marshes of Pin Point.

On a crisp morning, Thomas helped dedicate a Georgia historical marker noting the importance of Pin Point, where his birth and elevation to the Supreme Court was not the first accomplishment but simply the most recent.

And then, with the rest of the crowd, he walked the 7/10s of a mile to the other end of a community too small to be called a town.

There, a whitewashed new Pin Point Heritage Museum has taken the place of the seafood cannery where his mother once worked while her baby rested in a crab basket. Its aim is to tell the rich story of the freed Sea Islands slaves who founded Pin Point, and to preserve what some historians say is the last piece of Georgia coastline still owned mostly by African Americans.

“Let us just savor this miracle,” Thomas said when it was his turn at the pulpit of his mother’s packed Sweetfield of Eden Baptist Church. “Pin Point has a chance to survive.”

Pin Point is the world into which Thomas was born, but the museum is owed to the world in which Thomas now lives. His friend Harlan Crow, a wealthy Dallas developer who also donates to conservative political causes, has spent millions of dollars on the project.

That and other generosities to Thomas and his wife, Virginia, have given rise to ethics controversies in Washington. After a New York Times investigative report identified Crow as the museum’s anonymous donor and raised questions about trips Thomas took that Crow might have underwritten, government ethics groups and liberal organizations protested.

“Do Supreme Court justices get a pass on the ethical standards that every other judge must meet?” asked Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause.

Others have said there is no prohibition against a justice’s friend spending money on such a project unless there was pressure to do so.

In his remarks, Thomas said that for years he was helpless when folks asked him to do something to preserve Pin Point, except to “hope and pray someone comes along.”

Thomas called Crow, who was not at the event, a “good man” who wants nothing in return for his generosity, but whose motives are being questioned.

If the property had not been bought as a museum site, said Hanif Haynes, president of the Pin Point Betterment Association, it likely would have been sold to developers and changed the nature of the place.

“I guess this is a way he feels he can give back to the community,” Hayne said of Thomas. “People aren’t concerned with who and how it was financed.”

Making a new life

The strip of land that is Pin Point is part of the congressionally designated Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor. There, freed slaves from Ossabaw and other islands were able to make a life from the shrimp, oysters and crabs that thrived in the coastal creeks.

Although Thomas lived in Pin Point for only the first six years of his life, the self-reliance of its mostly black population and tales of hardscrabble life were irresistible when he was nominated to the Supreme Court 20 years ago.

In his autobiography, Thomas described it this way: “The house in which I was born was a shanty with no bathroom and no electricity except for a single light in the living room.” He described fetching water in lard buckets and making toys of old juice cans.

“Life in Pinpoint was uncomplicated and unforgiving, but for me it was idyllic,” Thomas wrote, using the alternative spelling of the community. But his father had abandoned the family, and when his house burned down, his mother moved him and his brother to Savannah, where they eventually came to live with his demanding but relatively prosperous grandfather.

Thomas has attributed any success in life to his grandfather, Myers Anderson, who enrolled the boys in Catholic schools and made sure that while they worked hard, they also lacked nothing.

On Saturday, it was as if Thomas never left. One by one, folks waited to hug him or to take a picture. He swayed with the hymns and laughed as the speakers recalled the nicknames that everyone in town received — Pig, Wasp, Nerve, Pigeon, among them. Thomas’s was “Boy,” which led Haynes to call upon “our homeboy, Boy.”

At the museum, Thomas plays a role in a documentary film and one panel in the crab picking building notes that after his confirmation, “Pin Point would never again be known only for its oysters and crab.”

Historic preservation

Emily Owens, a vice president at Crow Holdings and the force behind the museum, said it was unfair that it has been cast as a favor that Crow is doing for Thomas.

“This is not about Justice Thomas,” she said. Reminded that Crow would not have undertaken such a role except for Thomas, she said her boss is interested in historic preservation. Asked if she would say how much the enterprise cost, she replied: “Absolutely not.”

Crow has a history of spending on the Thomases. A collector of rare books, he gave Thomas a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass. It was valued at $19,000 a decade ago. He pledged, anonymously at first, $150,000 for renovations at the Carnegie Library, for a time the only library in Savannah that welcomed blacks and the place where the bookish Thomas spent hours as a child. He wanted the library’s name changed, but settled for the wing, so long as the library board “uses Justice Thomas’s name in a way to honor him.”

Politico reported that Crow donated $500,000 to the cause when Virginia Thomas founded the tea party-related Liberty Central civic action group several years ago. She is no longer associated with the group.

Neither Crow nor his companies have had cases before the court, although he has contributed to other groups that do file briefs there. Edgar and some congressional Democrats have said Thomas’s activities might violate bans that other judges — but not the justices — must adhere to regarding fundraising for charities..

Barbara Fertig, a history professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah who has consulted with Thomas on Pin Point, said she disagrees with Thomas’s jurisprudence, but “we are in solid agreement on the importance of Pin Point.”

It is, she said, an “American story” about people “who never moved away from the site of their enslavement” and still made a life. But she is unclear what role the museum will play in Pin Point’s long-term preservation. Even though it is built, there are still questions about when it will open and who will run it.

But Thomas said it gives Pin Point a chance “to remain as it is, not as others might wish to see it.”

Researcher Lucy Shackelford con­tributed to this report.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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