Review of “An Unplanned Life” by Franklin A. Thomas



Long before Franklin A. Thomas (1934-2021) stepped onto the national stage as the first Black president of the Ford Foundation, he had accomplished a lifetime’s worth of hard, important work. His posthumous book, “An Unplanned Life,” which narrates his upbringing and career, is a professional — as opposed to personal — memoir, tracing major developments in the 20th century.

“Some of the most satisfying professional experiences I’ve had came knocking at my door and took me in directions I’m not sure I ever imagined,” Thomas writes. His dedication to whatever he undertook, along with a commitment to rolling up his sleeves and fixing problems, frames his career.

Thomas grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, son of immigrants who kept two portraits on the walls of their home: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Queen of England. Both parents were born in the Commonwealth, his father in Antigua, coming to the States as part of “the group recruited from the Caribbean to help dig the Panama Canal,” and his mother in Barbados, arriving when she was 16. Thomas was the youngest of six, taught that “if you were smart, had good values, and worked hard, there were no limits to what you could do, even though I was growing up in a period of intense racial segregation.” He thrived on sports — basketball — and school. He received a scholarship to Columbia and joined the Air Force after college. Everywhere, he encountered racism, but also support from fellow Black students and from mentors of all stripes.

Can Americans still change each other’s minds?

Thomas earned a law degree from Columbia and went to work for the Manhattan office of the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency (which became the Department of Housing and Urban Development), where he gained valuable skills in real estate and development focusing on public financing for affordable housing.

Noticed as a hard-working, smart young man, he was tapped by New York Mayor John Lindsay’s administration in 1966 to work as the deputy commissioner in the New York Police Department, then under reform-minded leadership. Reflecting on that era, Thomas writes, “As an African American in the top levels of the department hierarchy, I’m sure I faced resistance, but interestingly, my basketball history … made a difference to many who were deciding whether they were going to cooperate and assist me, or stonewall me every step of the way.” This wry observation provides the background to Thomas’s work ethic — nose to the grindstone, stay focused, and do what needs to be done.

In preparation for his 1968 presidential bid, Robert Kennedy went all in on what was then called “urban renewal.” He chose Thomas’s old neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant to focus his energy. Kennedy’s team did a hard sell to recruit Thomas to run the effort. It didn’t take long for Thomas to ascertain that the leadership was bifurcated along race and class lines: the all-White moneyed, politically and philanthropically connected finance side, and the all-Black community side — replete with local leaders who had clear views about what was needed. Thomas provides detailed descriptions of the strategic community efforts to own this project and the resistance from White leadership, which included many who went on to well-known careers, among them Benno Schmidt, who was later president of Yale. Ultimately, Thomas dove in and became the first executive director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. He brought in tens of millions of dollars, oversaw the financing and development of affordable housing, and attracted businesses to the neighborhood — notably IBM — that created thousands of jobs. A 1982 New York Times interview with Thomas stated that by the end of his decade of service, the organization “had spent $63 million in public and private funds, and could point to 3,682 exterior renovations of buildings and 123 established businesses, creating 3,300 new jobs, in a 96-block area.” Today this kind of work takes place around the country in some 1,300 Community Development Financial Institutions, which owe a great debt to Thomas.

Thomas was tapped to run the Ford Foundation in 1979, succeeding McGeorge Bundy in a period of financial retrenchment due to poor investments. Thomas downsized the behemoth, overseeing massive layoffs and streamlining program areas. One lasting impact was his creation of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which is still going strong and has raised $26.7 billion since Ford seeded it, leveraging $75 billion in money raised from other sources for residential, nonprofit and small-business construction in low-income neighborhoods.

Imagining alternatives to righteous combat

Thomas served on multiple corporate boards and became deeply involved in efforts to end apartheid in South Africa following a visit to that country that opened his eyes. In 1979, just before he was tapped to run the Ford Foundation, he was asked to chair the high-level South Africa study commission, an organization designed to offer U.S. policy recommendations. In some ways, these two efforts coalesced, as Thomas worked to reframe Ford’s international presence, but in others, the South Africa work took on a life of its own. Chapters titled “A South Africa Study Commission,” “A Changing Landscape in South Africa,” “Mandela’s Freedom,” “President Mandela” and “Inauguration” give the trajectory of Thomas’s engagement: from serving as a measured, somewhat conservative rapporteur, to negotiating behind the scenes with high-level officials and activists both here and abroad, to becoming a personal adviser to Nelson Mandela.

In “An Unplanned Life,” Thomas shares his guiding philosophy: “The Dream of America is a more generous, a more expansive, and a more novel dream than simply the dream of individual success and security.” His vision is of an inclusive America, in which every generation works to see that the promise of America includes “more and more of its people, that the American identity be rooted in a person’s willingness to commit to the ideal of America and to work toward its realization.” That viewpoint alone makes this book worth reading.

Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, “Three Muses,” has just been published. She completed 26 years running a social justice foundation in 2020.

The New Press. 279 pp. $28.99

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