Bessie Thomas used her life to serve her community on opposite ends of the age spectrum.
An Evans resident for more than 70 years, Thomas, 93, took up teaching in 1935 at the Clary Grove Elementary School in Harlem. She later taught at Oakey Grove Elementary School in Evans before taking a teaching position in McCormick County, where she served for 32 years.
A first-hand witness to desegregation in Southern schools, Thomas had always taught at blacks-only schools until her final few classes before she retired in 1974.
"There wasn't too much difference," Thomas said of desegregation. "You had to work hard both ways. It wasn't any change for me."
Following a five-year working hiatus, Thomas then took a position as coordinator for the Columbia County Council on Aging.
"In 1979, I used to visit the group," Thomas recalled. "They didn't have a president. I volunteered and come to find out I was coordinator."
Thomas and an assistant worked out of the Blanchard Park Community Center running a Meals on Wheels program, offering lunches to seniors at the center and orchestrating afternoon activities for seniors.
After retiring from her second career, Thomas was honored with a new community center for seniors built in the early 1990s in Grovetown named for her.
"I was in a meeting and they wanted a name for it," she said. "They asked if it was all right if they named it for me. I told them, 'If the county doesn't mind, it's all right with me.'"
Now, Thomas spends most of her time reading, gardening and quilting and remains involved with her church, Emmanuel Faith Christian Center in Grovetown.
Despite her legacy, Thomas said she never really considered herself a role model.
She said she worked with students and seniors because that was simply what she loved to do.
"I'm just proud because I was doing what I enjoyed: working with people," she said.
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