“I sat so you could stand”

Categories: The Insider

Born in Kentucky during segregation, Augusta Y. Thomas spent her life fighting for racial equality and union rights. At the age of 13, she moved to Atlanta, where she was a classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., known then as “Little Martin.” After graduating Central Colored High School in Louisville, Thomas attended Clark University in Atlanta and Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing in St. Louis.

In 1960, Thomas defied the warnings of her husband and father and drove with her sister from Louisville to Greensboro, N.C., where African-Americans were staging sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter to protest segregation. Thomas was fair-skinned, and she was attacked by segregationists who thought she was white.

“They spat on me and they knocked me off the stool,” Thomas told the Washington Post in 2010. She was arrested twice.

It was a seminal moment in the struggle for civil rights, and in the decades that followed Thomas often would recall that time by stating, “I sat so you could stand.”

Thomas entered the federal government in 1966 as a nursing assistant at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Louisville, Ky. She loved to tell people that she joined AFGE on her first day on the job. 

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. Thomas 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.

“Augusta was AFGE’s most iconic leader – a champion who sacrificed everything to ensure future generations have a voice and a seat at the table,” said Jeremy Lannan, who in August was elected to succeed Thomas as national vice president for women and fair practices. “The best way to honor her legacy is to keep fighting for fairness and equality, as she did for her entire life.”

NVP Emeritus Thomas is survived by nine children, 11 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

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