‘The Black Russian’ Lecture Promises Unique Coahoma County Link to Aristocratic Moscow
CLARKSDALE – The intriguing aura of the Mississippi Delta gains a surprising new dimension as the birthplace of The Black Russian, the son of former slaves, who emigrated from Coahoma County in the 19th century to become a flamboyant entrepreneur in aristocratic Moscow.
The extraordinary life of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born outside Dublin, Miss., in 1869 to Lewis T. Thomas, an ex-slave, and India P. Thomas, is unveiled in The Black Russian by its author Vladimir Alexandrov, a professor from Yale University.
Following years of archival research by Alexandrov in the Coahoma County Courthouse, the National Archives in Maryland and he says, “all over the U.S. and a half -dozen foreign countries,” the book is being published and introduced in a spring lecture tour.
The author, who is B.E. Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature and director of Yale Graduate Studies, will talk about his book at the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, March 22.
The presentation is being sponsored by Carnegie Public Library, Coahoma Community College and the Coahoma County Higher Education Center.
Asked what prompted his initial interest in Frederick Thomas, Alexandrov says it began when he was reading the memoirs of a Russian singer, Alexander Vertinsky, who was popular during World War I and later in Europe.
“He (Vertinsky) was describing how he escaped from the Bolsheviks in the south of Russia in 1920 and got to Constantinople where he began to perform for someone he described as ‘our famous Moscow Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, who had owned the famous Maxim in Moscow.’”
“I had never heard of this man, became intrigued, and started doing research,” says the author.
Six years of meticulous research later including meeting the grandson of Frederick Thomas in Paris resulted in The Black Russian, he says.
“Vladimir makes the book come alive; he is a fascinating writer totally enthralled with this story,” says genealogy specialist Judy Flowers of Dublin.
Flowers assisted the author with local research including tracking down the original deed to the Thomas family property recorded in Friars Point during the 19th century.
Referred to Flowers by historian Flo Larson at the North Delta Museum in Friars Point and Chancery Clerk Ed Peacock and his staff at the Coahoma County Courthouse, Alexandrov says she was “crucial” to his research.
“She told me she found some records pertaining to my quest; she also sent copies of the items she had found which was not easy because the 19th century records were in large, heavy volumes hard to carry and fit on a photocopy machine,” he said.
“Judy’s discovery made me decide to come to Clarksdale to do a thorough search,” he says.
During April and May of 2008, Alexandrov spent four days in Clarksdale looking at records in the Courthouse starting with 1869 and ending in 1895. He also did research at Carnegie Library.
Together Flowers and Alexandrov went to see the area near Dublin where the Thomas family land used to be and the AME church and cemetery they founded.
“The core of the Thomas property always straddled what is now Highway 49, two miles south of Dublin, where Hopson Bayou comes closest to the road,” he said.
Flowers says the location is not far from Tutwiler. However, she adds Thomas Chapel later was moved closer to Dublin.
For a number of years, Flowers says she has enjoyed meeting people and assisting their search of family records.
“It’s a great hobby; learning about ordinary as well as prominent families is interesting because you can see pictures of their lives through their records,” she says.
One of these is the daughter-in-law of former President Jimmy Carter.
Jen Waller, CCHEC director, says a reception honoring Alexandrov will precede his March 22 lecture.
“The doors will open at 5 p.m., and his lecture begins at 5:30 p.m.,” she says. Chef Brennon Warr, director of Coahoma’s culinary department and his students are preparing appetizers.
During his book tour, Alexandrov also will be speaking at the University of Mississippi’s annual Conference for the Book in Oxford.