When you walk into the AFGE headquarters building in Washington, DC, you will be greeted by a memorial plaque depicting an image of Augusta Y. Thomas, our union’s beloved national vice president emeritus for Women’s and Fair Practices Departments and a civil rights champion who passed away in 2018.
We etched Ms. Augusta's AFGE legacy in stone as we dedicated a plaque to her in a Feb. 16 ceremony attended by her family and AFGE leaders, members, and current and former staff.
Ms. Augusta was instrumental in shaping the future and policies of our union. Together with a group of AFGE staffers and members, Ms. Augusta helped create Women’s Affairs Department in 1974, which was later merged with Fair Practices Department and became WFP.
As WFP national vice president, Ms. Augusta established the Y.O.U.N.G. (Young Organizing Unionists for the Next Generation) program to include and promote younger workers within AFGE and the labor movement. She established the AFGE Pride program to make AFGE a safe zone for all AFGE members within this union. She actively promoted voter protection to make sure that every vote was counted. She loved being able to help others and continued to work well into her eighties.
“I remember having a talk with Augusta and we were talking about age and getting up there. I remember she told me, “I don’t want to sit home and do nothing. I really enjoy the job – it keeps me going.’ I think that sometimes we need to keep each other in our hearts,” Frank Silberstein, an AFGE member who worked with Ms. Augusta as a District 14 fair practices coordinator, spoke at the plaque dedication ceremony.
“The time that Augusta Thomas served AFGE was the right time because through her, we’ve seen so many accomplishments. She was the one who brought YOUNG and PRIDE to AFGE and we have to appreciate her for that,” AFGE President Everett Kelley said at the ceremony.
A kind soul
Ms. Augusta was beloved by all, even more so by AFGE staff who worked with her and cherished their fond memories of the courageous, inspiring fighter who was also incredibly kind to those around her.
“When I came on, I was only in my twenties. Ms. Augusta took me on, and there was a fight that we had to fight. She came to me and said, ‘Baby, don’t you worry about this. We got this. We’re a union.’ And she sat me down and she gave me the rules,” said Denene Colbert, who worked at WFP when Ms. Augusta was a women’s coordinator in the department. “She told me what to do, what not to do, how to stand, and if you want to stay at AFGE, work hard, do your job, and be dedicated. And I thank her for that. I thank her for being in my life. I thank her for being so humble. I couldn’t have a better person to be there as a mentor for me, and I’ll continue to say her legacy lives on.”
“Our family loved her. Even my grandchildren said ‘Nana you’re not our grandmother no more – Ms. Augusta is,” said Verna Pitts who was Ms. Augusta’s assistant as NVP and was close to her.
“She was really big on ‘what you have is your name and your word.’ You do right by people, everything else would be okay,” said Jenny Celestin-Pratt, WFP supervisory attorney who worked closely with her.
‘I believe in helping anybody who can’t help themselves.’
Ms. Augusta was born in Kentucky during segregation. At the age of 13, she moved to Atlanta, where she was a classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After graduating Central Colored High School in Louisville, Augusta attended Clark University in Atlanta and Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing in St. Louis.
In 1960, Ms. Augusta defied the warnings of her husband and father and drove with her sister from Louisville to Greensboro, N.C., where Black college students were staging sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter to protest segregation. She was fair-skinned, and so she was attacked by segregationists who thought she was white. They spat on her and knocked her off the stool. She was arrested twice.
In 1966, Ms. Augusta entered the federal government as a nursing assistant at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Louisville, Ky. She joined AFGE on her first day on the job.
Two years later, 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis after two members of a garbage truck crew were crushed to death by a malfunctioned truck. Ms. Augusta and Dr. King crossed paths again in the Tennessee city where both stood in solidarity with the strikers. She and five other women from different unions were in their first-floor rooms at the Lorraine Motel when Dr. King was shot dead by a racist white man on a second-floor balcony.
After Ms. Augusta passed away, AFGE’s National Executive Council proclaimed Oct. 14 of every year to be AFGE’s Augusta Y. Thomas Day – a day dedicated to community service and reflection of the life of a leader that inspires us all to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
In recognition of her work on civil, human, and workplace rights, AFGE’s 6th District developed the Augusta Thomas Humanitarian Award, which is presented every three years to an AFGE member who comes closest to following Thomas’s example.
Ms. Augusta also was recognized by the Commonwealth of Kentucky for her efforts to promote racial equality and economic development, declaring April 4th as Augusta Thomas Day.
Last year, a street in her old neighborhood of Newburg in Louisville was named “Augusta Y. Thomas Way” in her honor.
Ms. Augusta is sorely missed, but we will do all we can to honor her name.