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Witness to History

For most of us, the impressions we leave on this earth come in the form of either the families we raise or the careers we fashion. Hank Thomas has done just fine on both fronts. He’s a father of two and grandfather of five, and he’s been a successful restaurant and hotel franchisee. But none of that will be front and center when discussing his lasting legacy.
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That’s because Thomas was one of the original “Freedom Riders,” and his willingness to walk through fire—somewhat literally—in the fight to integrate American society changed our country. As president of Victoria Hospitality, Thomas owns and operates four Marriott hotels (two Fairfield Inns, two TownePlace Suites), but the front doors of those fine establishments are hardly the most important doors he’s had a hand in opening.

“Coming of age in the 1960s in college, I was like a lot of students both North and South, black and white, in that the issue of human rights was front of mind for all of us,” Thomas recalls. In 1960, he was arrested for the first of 22 times for picketing outside a Maryland movie theater that wouldn’t admit blacks. The following year, a group called the Congress of Racial Equality issued a call for volunteers to participate in the first Freedom Ride, in which a group of 13 people—seven blacks, six whites—would sit together on a southbound bus leaving from Washington, D.C. Thomas became the youngest of those original 13.

The tales Thomas is left to tell are equal parts inspiring and harrowing. In South Carolina, he was forced at gunpoint by a police officer to give himself over to a lynch mob, then outran that mob for several minutes until a passing car came to his rescue. In Alabama, Thomas and his fellow Freedom Riders were trapped inside a stopped bus with a lit grenade. Their survival was miraculous, made possible by the heat from the burning bus keeping the surrounding mob at a distance while the riders battled the smoke inhalation and busted out.

Thomas’ ride ended after that incident, but more than 400 additional activists became Freedom Riders in the summer of ’61, and as a result, the Interstate Commerce Commission soon began enforcing the laws of non-discrimination that so many Southern states had been ignoring.

“That was America some 50 years ago,” Thomas says. “Obviously, I thought back on all of that the night of President Obama’s first election. It is a source of tremendous pride for me to say I played a small part in the monumental changing of this country, and to witness where we are now, I do get a sense of smug satisfaction.”

Having successfully fought for his rights, Thomas soon took part in another fight, serving as a medic in the Vietnam War and earning a Purple Heart. He then went into the Laundromat business, and after that became a McDonald’s franchisee. Nothing says “smug satisfaction” quite like a man who was once refused service at a McDonald’s going on to own seven of them. “In 1966 in Atlanta,” Thomas recalls, “a McDonald’s restaurant refused to hire me as a part-time cashier. In 1987, I bought that McDonald’s restaurant.”

The same determination that guided Thomas through racial boundaries in the ’60s carried over to a career in which his ambition never waned. In 1999, after several decades in the restaurant business, Thomas branched out by opening a Marriott in Macon, Ga., then followed with three additional hotels. Still battling racial stereotyping to this day—one of his favorite stories is of being taken for a waiter at a dinner where he was accepting an award from Marriott—Thomas just keeps rolling along, overcoming any perceived slight with patience, persistence, and calm.

Thomas feels his wealth of experience in life and in the food industry has served him well on the hotel side of things. “Whether you’re a McDonald’s franchisee or a Marriott franchisee, you’re talking about hospitality, giving great service,” he says. “All the hotel franchises with high-recognition names sell a similar product. The difference is going to be the level of service that you provide and that your guests have come to expect.”

One key to Thomas’ profitability is that old cliché, “location, location, location.” Two of his hotels are in military towns where the hotel market is not oversaturated. “Location was so important for me,” he says. “If you have a greater supply than the market demands, you’re not going to be particularly happy with your results.”

That Thomas is around today to share his pearls of wisdom and business strategies is a minor miracle, given the risks he took on in his days as a teenage civil rights activist. In the hospitality business, the risks are obviously less profound, but Thomas has thrived by calculating them effectively. And so he rides on, some 50 years after his ride that re-shaped a nation.

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