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At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the richest, most famous men in Moscow was also one of his era’s most unlikely success stories. Frederick Bruce Thomas, an American born to former slaves, escaped racism in the South, worked his way across Europe and found freedom and prosperity as a nightclub owner in Russia’s capital. But Thomas’ incredible journey didn’t end there. Kojo talks with an author who researched and revived this extraordinary story, and learns about the revolutionary times that shaped Thomas’ life.
- Vladimir Alexandrov Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, Yale University; author of "The Black Russian"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Black Russian” by Vladimir Alexandrov. Copyright 2013 by Vladimir Alexandrov. Reprinted here by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf I asked you to name a famous Russian, who comes to mind? Vladimir Putin perhaps, Mikhail Baryshnikov? Or how about a famous black Russian? Now that's a tougher one. And though the list is much shorter, Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature, belongs on it. And so does a man named Frederick Bruce Thomas, a son of former slaves who fled the antebellum South and eventually became one of the richest men in Russia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThomas' largely forgotten life was punctuated by terrible tragedy and high-flying success. But it also intersected with some of the most pivotal events of the early 20th century. So how did Thomas make his way from the depths of the Mississippi Delta to the heights of European society? Joining us to explain it all is Vladimir Alexandrov. He is a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale University. He's also the author of the book "The Black Russian." Vladimir Alexandrov, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. VLADIMIR ALEXANDROVThank you very much.
NNAMDIThis is the kind of story many writers dream about digging up. You found an extraordinary man who overcame huge odds in his own country, traveled through Europe during a period of massive upheaval and led a life of towering success on the one hand and terrible tragedy on the other. How did you come across the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas?
ALEXANDROVI remember the moment very well because it changed my life. I was reading the memoirs of a Russian singer who was very popular during the First World War and then afterwards in Europe in the 1920s and '30s by the name of Alexander Vertinsky. And he described how he escaped from the Bolsheviks in the south of Russia in 1920, landed in Constantinople and began to perform -- and here I'll translate from his Russian memoir -- in the entertainment garden of our famous Moscow Negro Frederick Bruce Thomas, the owner of the famous Maxim in Moscow.
ALEXANDROVAnd reading that sentence surprised me so much that I closed the book and put it down because I had studied the period in Russia and I'd never heard of anybody like this. So that's what got me started on my quest.
NNAMDIThe quest to find out who Frederick Bruce Thomas was. Frederick Thomas' story is remarkable considering the tragic events that shaped his early life. Tell us a little bit about his childhood and the guiding influence of his parents.
ALEXANDROVHis parents are the people who gave him his wings. They were obviously an inspiration to Frederick Thomas because they were remarkable black people. They had been slaves, as you mentioned, until the end of the Civil War. And then in 1869 they managed to do something that very few black people in that part of the old South had achieved, which was to buy a farm at auction for a pittance. And they made it into a terrific success within the year. They multiplied their investment hundreds of times over.
ALEXANDROVThey also showed remarkable commitment to their local black community by donating an acre of land to found an AME church on their property. And Frederick later on in life showed the same kind of commitment to people who were near him, as well as to trying to improve his status in life through business ventures.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. We're talking with Vladimir Alexandrov about his book "Black Russian." He's a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale University. Have you ever traveled from one country to another and been treated differently because of your race? Give us a call. What historic characters can you think of who live through several major world events in a variety of countries during their lifetimes, 800-433-8850?
NNAMDIFrederick Thomas' parents were ultimately ruined by a white farmer who had been a business associate of their in the past. What motivated that man to essentially bully Frederick's parents off their land?
ALEXANDROVIn a word it was racism. The reconstruction period was over in the South and the white power structure wanted to reassert its authority. And this rich white planter who owned thousands of acres of land resented that there was a successful black family living in Coahoma County. And he wanted to crush them. So he developed a ruse to steal their land. And in the end it pretty much worked because the Thomas family decided to get out of harm's way after winning the first stage of their legal battle against him in a local courthouse and left for Memphis. So his goal of getting rid of this prominent family was achieved, unfortunately.
NNAMDIWhat happened to them? Because it's my understanding that they took this man, William Dickerson, to court. What happened there?
ALEXANDROVYeah, that was a remarkable thing. It's also something that foreshadows how Frederick would behave later on in defending his interests. The ruse that the planter had developed is one that the family fell in with at first until they thought longer and harder about it, decided that he was trying to cheat them and that they were going to stand up for what was theirs. And so they hired a white lawyer who fortunately for them turned out to be the political opponent of the white planter's white lawyer.
ALEXANDROVAnd this white lawyer won their case on the local level, which caused such a sensation that the white planter who began this entire process appealed the matter to the Mississippi State Supreme Court where it then unfolded for another half dozen years.
NNAMDIEnd of discussion, forcing the family to move to Memphis. But after they moved to Memphis -- and Frederick's parents seemed worth of a book of their own by the way -- after they moved to Memphis, tragedy struck the family which prompted Frederick to get out of the South. What qualities do you think Frederick took from his parents that would serve him well during his incredible life?
ALEXANDROVI think the fundamental trait that he shared with them was the ability to reinvent himself to pull himself up and to try to realize his dreams in fact, not just in his mind. Because his parents began with nothing and became very successful farmers in a very hostile environment before that attempt by the white planter unfolded. And he continually redefined himself later in life, moving into new settings, settings that were not traditional for young black men then in the United States, like going north, going to Europe, going to Russia. So it's this American trait of reinventing oneself and pulling oneself by one's bootstraps I think.
NNAMDIHis first step in doing that, Chicago 1890. He arrived there. How were blacks treated in Chicago at that time?
ALEXANDROVWell, they were treated somewhat better than in the South, but they were still limited in terms of what they could do for a living. And Frederick became a waiter and a valet, a servant. And he was very good at it. In fact his first job as a waiter was at the fanciest hotel in town, which had just been built for the World's Fair that was coming in 1893. So he began at the highest level within the limited range that was given to him.
ALEXANDROVSame was true of his life in Brooklyn a little bit later. There were very few black people in either place in those days, somewhere around 1.3, 1.4 percent. And this actually illustrates something striking about Frederick because he went north decades before the great migration began, which is when hundreds of thousands of millions of black Americans went north to find new opportunities.
NNAMDIWhat did he learn? And I should, of course, have mentioned that his father was murdered in Memphis.
ALEXANDROVHe was murdered in a very grizzly way by a disgruntled tenant in the boarding house that he ran. And that pretty much destroyed the family and send Frederick on his trajectory abroad.
NNAMDIWhat did Frederick learn about money, power and managing people while he was in Chicago?
ALEXANDROVI think that because he worked in upscale places where all of the clients in those days were white, he could understand the kind of behavior that was expected of somebody who would want to succeed in that kind of a circle. Also he became a valet to a prominent business man in Brooklyn, a businessman who was on the verge of becoming the biggest owner of vaudeville theaters in the New York area.
ALEXANDROVI think that Frederick -- and he was obviously a very intelligent young man -- picked things up quickly. Also had received an education in the South, began to understand how the world worked and what kinds of buttons would have to be pushed to get white people to do things that you needed.
NNAMDIThe book is called "The Black Russian." It's all about the life of Frederick Bruce Thomas. We're talking with the author Vladimir Alexandrov. He is a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale University. Frederick spent the rest of his life in Europe after his stays in Chicago and New York. What was it like for a black man in post-Civil War America to arrive in Europe?
ALEXANDROVIt was a transformative experience, because in England and France and other parts of western Europe, later on in Russia, there was no racial bias against people of any kind of African descent, whether they came from the United States via the Caribbean or directly from Africa. There was racism in Europe. There was anti-Semitism. The Brits were racist with regard to south Asians, but they did not...
NNAMDIIt wasn't institutionalized.
ALEXANDROVNot as far as I know, no. And in fact, the only anti-black reactions that I encountered during the years when Frederick was in western Europe in the late 1890s was from American tourists who went to London or Paris and then would write back shocked letters to the editors of newspapers at home saying we saw a black man and a white woman in a fancy restaurant. Nobody thought there was anything wrong with it, can you believe it?
ALEXANDROVSo Frederick found freedom to be simply a human being in western Europe, and that's why he stayed there. He also picked up languages very readily, which made it a lot easier for him.
NNAMDISpoke French fluently. From London Frederick crisscrossed Europe taking odd jobs as a waiter. Tell us about his adventures and why he had apparently such wanderlust.
ALEXANDROVI think he was a naturally curious man. I think also that he had a wonderfully portable profession. Because if you were a well-trained waiter from Chicago, and had worked in London and Paris, you could do that kind of job anywhere. If you knew French the way Frederick did, then you could work anywhere in Europe, because the second language of Europe everywhere was French, the was English has become now. So he, I think, after a certain point began to look for a place where he might be able to put down roots, and it just happened to be that Russia was the place he chose.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, but before that, I'll go to the telephone. Put on your headphones, please, so we can listen to Wayne in Columbia, Md. Wayne, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
WAYNEHi, Kojo. How are you today?
WAYNEYou mentioned that if there was anybody who reminded you of the particular person that you author is speaking of, and I thought of Alexandre Dumas's father, who was a general in Napoleon's army. And to read his story is extraordinary as well.
NNAMDIYes. In the same way that a lot of people did not know that Pushkin's great-grandfather was African, they also did not know about Alexandre Dumas who of course wrote "The Three Musketeers." They did not know about his father also. Wayne, thank you very much for your call, and with that, we're going to take -- unless you want to comment on that, Vladimir.
ALEXANDROVNo. There's just a great book that came out not long ago by Tom Reiss called "The Black Count." It just won the Pulitzer Prize in biographies, so yes, I'm delighted to hear that this book is getting the kind of traction it has.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Wayne. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Vladimir Alexandrov about his book, "The Black Russian." You can still call us at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Vladimir Alexandrov. He is a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale University. His book is called "The Black Russian." It's the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas. If you have ever heard of Frederick Bruce Thomas, we'd love to hear from you. 800-433-8850. Or do you have a skill that has taken you to jobs and even great success in countries around the world? You might want to share that experience with us at our website, kojoshow.org, or you can simply send us email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIWhat was it like, Vladimir Alexandrov, for Frederick to enter Russia in the year 1899? How was he treated?
ALEXANDROVRussia had very few black people anywhere at any time. You mentioned the person in the 18th century who was Pushkin's ancestor. Around 1900, Moscow had a population of about a million people, and my estimate is that there were perhaps 10 or 12 people of any kind of African descent living in the city. But the city was mixed racially in other ways, because there were people from central Asian, people from foreign countries who went there on business.
ALEXANDROVSo although Frederick was very rare as a black person, he didn't stand out, and Russia had no race line at all as he himself used to like to remember when he left the country. So there were no obstacles that he encountered even once in his climb to fame and fortune.
NNAMDIWithin 10 years of that arrival in Russia, Frederick changed his name and brought Aquarium, a famous nightclub in Moscow. Even today, doing business in Russia means kind of going around the law, maybe paying a few bribes here and there, bending the rules. What kind of business man was Frederick in Russia?
ALEXANDROVHe was a very smart business man, and he was perfectly willing to cross the border into what was not entirely legal or even into illegal when it would have been naïve or stupid not to do it because everybody else was doing it. I'll give you one concrete example. When the first world war began in 1914, there was prohibition in Russia, and it succeeded in Russia just as well as American prohibition would a half dozen years later, because everybody in Frederick's position skirted the law in one way or another, bribing somebody if it was necessary, selling things illegally.
ALEXANDROVSo he wasn't out of line in terms of what he did, but he was very savvy, and he was a very good employer. His employees were grateful to him for being very humane.
NNAMDIIf you're running a nightclub in 1914, you gotta find a way to have liquor in there.
ALEXANDROVOh, absolutely. Who would want to go without it?
NNAMDITell me a little bit about Frederick's family life during his years in Moscow.
ALEXANDROVHe married a young German woman early on in 1902. They were very happily married. They had three lovely children. I found photographs of them. They're really very handsome. She unfortunately died on pneumonia in 1910, so he married the family's nanny, and that was a marriage of convenience judging by the fact that within a year of marrying the second woman, Frederick began an affair with a beautiful, young German singer and dancer who then bore him two more sons.
ALEXANDROVBut she, eventually when he divorced his second wife from whom he was estranged, became his faithful third wife, and saw him through to the end.
NNAMDISo the marriage to the nanny, as you say, was a marriage of convenience because that enabled him to have someone there to take care of his children, so he could go out and have affairs.
ALEXANDROVWell, he was in the kind of a job that put him into a lot of frequent contract with attractive female performers. And he didn't abuse his position, but, you know, things happen.
NNAMDII want to go back briefly to how you dug up the details of Frederick's life. There was not a whole lot of information to go on. I see we haven't received a phone call from anybody who has ever heard of Frederick Bruce Thomas. A lot of the details that you received were either wrong or misleading, including details you got from some of Frederick's own descendants. What did they think they knew about him?
ALEXANDROVYeah. I -- in a very complicated way, I discovered one of Frederick's grandsons living in Paris, and that nice man told me his family's oral history, which I recorded with her permission in detail and then began to investigate. And what I discovered is that the oral history was largely wrong. So that, for example, I described, or I mentioned, how Frederick was descended from former slaves in Mississippi, the family oral history had him originating in a Native American tribe in the Southwest.
ALEXANDROVI described how he'd worked his way up from the restaurant floor to his fame and fortune in various countries. The family oral history had him becoming a merchant seaman, a smuggler in a south China sea, and saving a rich Russian's life in a Shanghai bar. None of which happened, but which made for an interesting narrative. So between unraveling the truth that I had tried to disentangle from the story that the grandson told me, I dug in archives and libraries in half a dozen different countries, and I was able to find a lot of information there.
NNAMDIHow did his grandson react to the news about -- to the information you dug up about his grandfather's background and...
ALEXANDROVHe wasn't very happy. I visited the man...
NNAMDIYou messed up a great story.
ALEXANDROVOh, it even went further than that, because he told me that he, the grandson, had been married twice in his life. He told me that he had won the hand of each of the women with this enthralling story of his grandfather's origins, and so now he had to face the fact that he had deceived, inadvertently, his first wife, and the second wife had married him on false pretenses. So anyway, he was joking, but of course he was disappointed, because what he had lived with for a long time proved in large measure not to be accurate.
NNAMDIFrederick Thomas's grandson was married to a woman who is quite famous in Paris right now. Can you tell us a little bit about who that is?
ALEXANDROVIndeed. Her name is Chantal Thomass, which is Thomas with two Ss and that surname comes from Frederick Bruce Thomas's line. She is a very well known designer of upscale lingerie, and she has a fancy boutique on one of the main shopping streets in Paris, and outlets around the world, and actually it was through her that I found the grandson, because in a complicated way I'd gotten wind of the fact that she used to be married to somebody in the family, and so I wrote to her and she passed my letters onto the man that I finally met.
NNAMDIFascinating story. The book is called "The Black Russian." The author of Vladimir Alexandrov. He joins us in studio. By 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power, Frederick suddenly found himself at terrible risk and ironically stereotyped as a potential enemy because -- well, of his socioeconomic status. Didn't his origin as a black American coming from a history of racism and discrimination help him out in that situation?
ALEXANDROVYou would have thought it should have when a revolution occurs that's trying to restructure a society, but the Bolsheviks who took over didn't care about the fact that Frederick had been oppressed as a black man in the United States. What they cared about...
NNAMDIThey didn't respond to the plea, help a brother out.
ALEXANDROVNot at all, yeah. What they responded to was that he was a prominent and rich businessman, and that immediately...
NNAMDIA member of the ruling class so to speak.
ALEXANDROVThat's right. He was on the wrong side of history. Their view of the world was based on class issues, and so he was a class enemy, and he was slated for destruction basically in one way or another. So his life was threatened, and he had to escape Soviet rule because he easily could have been killed simply for having been a rich businessman.
NNAMDIConstantinople gave Frederick a second chance. How did he reinvent himself there?
ALEXANDROVIt's a remarkable part of his story because he had been a millionaire with lots of property in Russia. He arrived in Constantinople in 1919 with $25 to his name, but he had a knack for starting things up, and there was nobody in the city who was better starting up nightclubs than him, who had had better experience. So he took out usurious loans from people that he had a hard time paying off, but he managed to pull it off. He organized night spots that became the hottest ones in the city. He imported jazz to Turkey where it took root. It survives to this day.
ALEXANDROVAnd so he managed to get his footing back, financially, and to become very successful until the long arm of American racism reached him in Constantinople again.
NNAMDIHow did that happen?
ALEXANDROVWell, the historical ground had shifted under his feet. The Ottoman Empire was substituted for by the Turkish Republic. The Turks would not recognize Frederick Thomas. They wouldn't give him citizenship. The Russian Empire that he had adopted had disappeared, so he turned to the Americans hoping that they would recognize him as an American, and they refused to because they resented his success, and there was racism in the diplomatic corps and in the State Department in Washington that had to pass judgment on his petition. So he was left without any kind of legal national standing, and that was the beginning of a cascade of problems that resulted in his tragic death.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned the Americans refused to accept him, and this is a man who traveled all over the world and spoke -- learned new languages very quickly. After all his travels and all of those languages he learned, did he ever lose that southern antebellum drawl...
ALEXANDROVNo, he never did.
NNAMDI…of which you spoke?
ALEXANDROVHe never did, which is one of the things that really shocked his American friends in Constantinople, because anybody who met him and spoke with him, immediately recognized who he was and where he was from. And so the claim of the State Department, which told the diplomats in Constantinople to reject Frederick Thomas, the claim that there was no proof that this man was an American, struck people who knew him as absurd.
NNAMDIBecause the minute he opened his mouth, you could tell. Here is Luce Maria in Washington D.C. who wants to tell us about how her parents went from one country to another and prospered. Luce Maria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LUCE MARIAMy parents also, Luce Maria and Jorge Prieto, were like my godparents, Estella and Alejandro Borrego, migrants in their own land of the Americas. And my father's family came running for their lives to the U.S., eventually were -- some of my aunts and uncles who were citizens of the U.S. because they were born here were deported as many Mexicans were, both citizens and not, during the Depression. Alejandro and Estella are Mexican natives of New Mexico in Las Cruces.
MARIAThe city of Las Cruces. They all met up after World War II in Chicago. My father was a family physician, Estella was a nurse, and they all ended up in Chicago, like so many Mexicans...
NNAMDIAnd were they able to build a successful life there?
MARIAOh, my goodness. Estella took my father under her wing because, you know, she was born on this side of the border, and Ale was a World War II vet, and my father so prospered as a family physician that today the Cook County Hospital Clinic is the Dr. Jorge Prieto Clinic.
NNAMDINamed after him. Another successful story. I'm afraid we're running out of time, Luce Maria, because I was expecting this question of Vladimir Alexandrov, and it came in a comment from Jay in Bethesda. "The story of Frederick Bruce Thomas sounds like a movie to me. Can we expect to see this story on the big screen sometime soon?"
ALEXANDROVI would love if that were to happen, of course. We all know that's a tough climb, but there are people who have said the same thing. So thank you to the person who commented.
NNAMDIIt is clearly a natural, if it ever makes it through the mire known as the Hollywood development process.
NNAMDIVladimir Alexandrov, thank you so much for joining us.
ALEXANDROVThank you. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDIVladimir Alexandrov is a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale University. He's also the author of the book "The Black Russian." "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and Stephannie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineers today Tobey Schreiner and Kellan Quigley. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones.
NNAMDIPodcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. To share questions or comments with us, email firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook, or send a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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