Hidden History: Augusta's first black reporter Frank Thomas talks about ups and downs of historic position

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) -  When you turn on the television to watch the news in Augusta and across the country, you will find several people of color.  But it was not until 1971, when the Garden City saw its first black reporter.

He stopped at nothing until her earned the title broadcast journalist.  Frank Thomas, a CSRA native, rose from the grips of the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement to tell stories on a platform where no one who looked like him had even done so before him. "It didn't dawn on me that I was the first black reporter. It didn't hit me." He made his way back on Channel 6 again.  Frank Thomas, Augusta, Georgia's first black reporter. Between 1971 and 1981, the Beech Island, South Carolina native was living history at WJBF."If you put me out there, I'm going to find the story," he said of his ambition.Though he grew up poor, thumbing a ride from the Palmetto State to the Peach State to attend school, Thomas joined the Air Force.  He spent 12 years traveling the world, before setting his sights on Armed Forces Radio/Television.  "The guy called Randolph Air Force Base," he said of a superior he was hoping could take him to newer heights.  "He told me to stay on the line, but not to say anything.  He said Sgt. Thomas is going to get out unless you let him cross train."Rejected plans led Thomas back down south to Augusta.  He interviewed with WJBF News Director Jim Davis."He said, ‘I like the way you sound. When can you come to work," he recalled of Davis.He started a year later in 1971 following Augusta's race riots that shut the city down. He covered local government stories. And there were many to tell. Thomas said, "I would write maybe 20 seconds or 30 seconds out of these different committee meetings. It got to the point when we were tagging it, if I'm doing the audio I would say, ‘This is Frank Thomas.'  All you had was, just about every story was, ‘This is Frank Thomas.  This is Frank Thomas.'  Finally, Jim said why don't we tag it one time," he laughed.  "It was funny.  But I was doing the stories and that's what we wanted.  You tag it, but I was monopolizing the newscast."No topic was untouchable. That's right.  Augusta's first black reporter had the Ku Klux Klan beat too."They had this big cross in the night and they were in their sheets there.  The cross is burning.  If it wasn't for what it represented like hate, you talk about something looked beautiful at night out there.  You take away the hate, but this thing is burning," he reflected.Though he didn't see hate.  Some did. "These kids said, ‘Take my picture.  Take my picture.'  Apparently, they figured out I had not taken their picture.  So, they yelled out take my picture and they used the N word.  I said to myself, now you know I started not to come back south.  Here I am going through this.  Walking along with my camera and stuff to the car, I meet these two older white people, husband and wife I assumed, and they looked at me and said Frank Thomas, we love you. We watch you all the time," he said.Thomas developed trust among his sources with a willingness to go off the record for a short time and a promise to get the story first when it was time.  He told NewsChannel 6 he fought for the top story back then and developed the best relationships along the way.  He found a friendship in the local police chief, Jim Beck, who he said was set in his ways during the 70s when it came to black/white relations."I was in front of him," he started.  "He took his knee and nudged me in the back.  I got behind him and nudged him back.  He said, ‘I'm the chief.'  I said, ‘I'm the news reporter.'  We became the best of friends.  It got to the point where I could go to the police station, I could go and look through all of the records that I wanted to.  There was not another reporter who could do that, black or white."Thomas held the historic position for a decade and then made a tough decision. "I had to make a tough decision to leave news to go to work for Richmond County government.  It was a tough call, but I knew I was not going to be the next news director," he said.Thomas transition into his new role as Executive Director of the Human Relations Commission where he fought for equal housing, employment and education for 28 years.  Looking back, the husband and father of three adult children is thankful."I think it was a wonderful experience. I got to know a lot of people, a lot of people got to know me," he said.  "There are so many people of good will at that time in this area. Where ever you would go, people would just love me and a lot of them were white."Thomas broke barriers for African American journalists after him.  I certainly stand on his shoulders. And can learn from someone who will stop at nothing until their dreams come true.

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