On The Trail of the Black Russian
A journey into the heart of the Delta helped a Yale professor unlock the key to an enigmatic figure from the past.
Frederick Bruce Thomas
By the time he caught a plane for Memphis back in May 2008, Vladimir Alexandrov was already deep into research for his prospective book. Some two years earlier, during a trip to the National Archives in Washington, the Yale University Slavic Languages professor had come across a dossier of information on a man named Frederick Bruce Thomas, one of the wealthiest nightclub owners and restaurateurs in pre-revolutionary Russia. Frederick Thomas was also, as it happens, a black expatriate from the Mississippi Delta, born to former slaves.
Realizing he had reached a “tipping point” for a possible biography on Thomas, Alexandrov subsequently embarked on a mission to retrace his subject’s peripatetic life. He scoured archives and libraries in Chicago, New York, and London, tracked down distant relatives in Paris, walked the streets of Moscow — each stop shedding more light on a shadowy figure who had somehow slipped through the cracks of history. Yet much was still missing. As the professor would shortly discover, the details of Thomas’ upbringing in the South were the keys to truly unlocking his story.
Now, nearly seven years after he began the project, Alexandrov’s The Black Russian has been published by Atlantic Monthly Press. In this book, the Yale professor traces the grand arc of Frederick Thomas’ life, from his early beginnings on a Delta farm to his wanderings across America, then finally, Europe, where through a combination of charm, intelligence, and dogged perseverance, he achieved a level of prominence that few black Americans of the time — particularly those from Mississippi — could have fathomed.
The book itself (Leonard Gill’s review of The Black Russian appears on page 66) is much more than a straightforward biography, however. In the hands of Alexandrov, himself the son of Russian emigres and a teacher whose career has focused on early twentieth-century Russia and its writers, we are offered a window into Europe on the brink of World War I. We meet the infamous Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas II during the last gasp of the Russian monarchy, and witness the Bolshevik Revolution itself and the chaos that follows as a suddenly penniless Thomas barely escapes with his family across the Black Sea to Constantinople. Throughout, the author introduces us to a host of intriguing characters, from American boxer Jack Johnson (Thomas nearly organized a fight for Johnson in Moscow) to colorful journalist William Drysdale to Bertha Proctor, a former chorus girl turned barkeeper and British spy.
Yet for all the book’s focus on international events, Thomas’ story is in many ways a Southern one; its themes — reinvention and tenacity, self-reliance and hope — are directly connected to Frederick’s ability to succeed once he escaped the repression of his native land. Which makes the fact that he was “discovered” by Alexandrov all the more interesting.
During a recent interview over craft beers and sandwiches in a popular New Haven restaurant, the silver-haired, 65-year-old professor explained that he had never set foot in the Deep South until lured there for research. When he landed in Memphis in the spring of 2008, he recalls, he drove straight to the Memphis Public Library, armed only with a rough outline of Thomas’ early life. He knew, for instance, that Thomas grew up near Clarksdale, Mississippi, but at some point had moved to Memphis with his family. Through online records he had also seen a reference to his father being murdered in the city. The rest of the story, he hoped, was waiting for him.
It didn’t take Alexandrov long to find the first piece of the puzzle. The father, Lewis Thomas, had indeed been killed in Memphis, in the most violent manner imaginable. In his sleep. With an ax. Reading old newspapers on microfilm, a stunned Alexandrov learned the incident occurred in October of 1890. The culprit was a railroad brakeman named Frank Shelton, who, along with his wife, had been renting a room at the Thomases, which also doubled as a boarding house. In the days leading up to the murder, Shelton had brutally assaulted his own wife. When Lewis intervened and called the authorities, a furious Shelton fled the boarding house and vowed revenge (“You are my meat!” he reportedly screamed at Lewis).
Shelton returned to exact his revenge early on the morning of October 28th. After breaking into the Thomas home, he crept upstairs, ax in hand, and entered the room where Lewis lay sleeping beside Frederick’s stepmother, India. Shelton then approached the bed and as the scene is described in The Black Russian, “raised the ax, took aim, and brought it down hard on Lewis’ face. The sound of the heavy blow roused India. She propped herself up on her elbows and glimpsed her husband struggling to rise with his arm outstretched; then the steel flashed and another heavy blow descended upon Lewis; India screamed in terror. Shelton dropped the ax, dashed out of the room, and ran down the stairs.” Although Frederick’s father died hours later, Shelton would not get far. The following day he was spotted boarding a train for Holly Springs, and upon his arrival, was shot dead by authorities as he attempted to escape.
As far as Alexandrov was concerned, the discovery of a more than 100-year-old murder added a significant twist to his main character’s narrative. “I was riveted; I had no idea,” he says, recalling his reaction in the library. “I didn’t know if I would find anything about the fate of the father.” Alexandrov would spend a number of days rounding out his findings in Memphis. Particularly helpful were old fire insurance maps that allowed him to locate the former site of the Thomas home, at the intersection of Kansas Street and Carolina Avenue. He also finally took a day to be a tourist, visiting the Memphis Cotton Exchange, Graceland, and the National Civil Rights Museum before packing up heading south for Clarksdale.
In the months prior to leaving Connecticut, Alexandrov had made contact with two Coahoma County locals and amateur historians. Both had already begun the process of digging for information on Thomas’ parents. Meeting his new friends in person and receiving their continued assistance, Alexandrov would subsequently confirm a host of facts — and make new discoveries — crucial to understanding Frederick Thomas’ early life in Mississippi. His parents were indeed slaves for a local family in the years leading up to the Civil War, and in 1869 the newly free Lewis Thomas managed to win a bid on a large farm some 12 miles southeast of Clarksdale. Frederick was born in 1872 and during his childhood the family increased the size of the farm several times, in the process becoming among the largest black landowners in the Delta. This in itself was rare enough. Even more rare for a black family of the day was the legal battle the Thomases initiated in 1886 against a wealthy white planter and business associate, who, through a series of devious maneuvers, had convinced them to deed over their land to him.
Alexandrov holed up with record books at the Coahoma County Courthouse, and learned that the Thomas family won the case in local court (legal services were provided by a prominent local attorney), only to see it appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. That litigation dragged on for years and, despite a number of partial victories, eventually resulted in the loss of the farm and the family’s move to Memphis.
All of this information — along with a condensed history of the Delta itself — is woven together in the book’s opening chapter, “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” The title pays tribute to a well-known book of the same name by historian James C. Cobb. (Alexandrov consulted Cobb and thanks him in the acknowledgment section.) One senses, then, in Alexandrov’s opening section, a genuine fascination with the region’s culture and past. We also find, in language that many a fiction writer would strive to emulate, lengthy descriptions of the Delta’s wild nineteenth-century landscape.
“A farm in the Delta was like an island in a vast green sea,” he writes at one point, “and the sounds one heard came mostly from nature. At dawn, the dew-laden air was filled with the cries of mourning doves, the staccato rattle of yellow-headed woodpeckers, and the grating calls of crows that flapped by on heavy wings. . . .”
Alexandrov was equally smitten by the modern-day Delta as well. During his time in Clarksdale, he made repeat trips to Ground Zero Blues Club and visited the Delta Blues Museum, the famous Crossroads, and the Riverside Inn. He drove to Friars Point (the former seat of Coahoma County where Lewis Thomas bid on his land) and climbed atop the levees for a look at the Mississippi River. One evening, braving a particularly nasty series of tornados, he stayed south of town in the Shack Up Inn, alternately taking cover under a stairwell and visiting with a group of Dutch tourists.
Looking back on his 2008 trip, Alexandrov says his personal experiences went hand in hand with actual document-based research, and proved vital when it came time to sit down and write. “Without Clarksdale I would have had nothing on the early years except for very abstract references to former slaves,” Alexandrov says, referring to Thomas’ parents. “And I wasn’t going to an archive where I was looking at documents that had been produced thousands of miles away. I was looking at documents effectively where they had been produced. And then when I was driving around, I would see on the mailboxes the surnames of some of the people I saw in the documents, from a century before. That history is alive in so many ways and for someone like me who is interested in the continuity of history, that’s another thing that is appealing about the South. People there live it.”
Following his trip to Memphis and Clarksdale, Alexandrov would complete the final leg of his research in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). It was here, he had pieced together, in this exotic land far removed from rural Mississippi, where Thomas spent the last decade of his life before dying in a hospital there, probably of pneumonia in 1928, after serving time in prison for unpaid debts. He was only 56, but had certainly lived a full life.
Back in New Haven at his writing desk, Alexandrov began to craft the text of his first-ever popular-history. Despite being an experienced author of academic prose (works with titles like Plurality of Interpretation and Nabokov’s Lolita and Limits to Interpretation: The Meaning of Anna Karenina), the process of writing for a general commercial audience was new to the Yale professor.
“It was a real tough climb,” he says, acknowledging there were times when he wondered if he could pull it off. Eventually, of course, he did; since its publication last month, The Black Russian has earned praise from a wide range of critics. As for what comes next, Alexandrov says he’s “been converted” to general-interest nonfiction and already has a number of future book ideas in mind. Whatever it ends up being, however, he doesn’t plan on repeating the globe-trotting, detective-like research it took to uncover the Frederick Thomas mystery.
“The next book is going to be based on something with a lot more information,” says Alexandrov with a smile. Here he pauses, seeming to consider how to continue. “Anyway, I’ll never find another Frederick Bruce Thomas.”
Andy Ross is a Mississippi native currently living in New York City. His nonfiction and journalism have appeared in The Daily Beast, Fringe, Texas Highways, Texas Live, Mississippi Sports Magazine and various newspapers. His latest story for Memphis magazine appeared in the September 2009 issue.