In Memoriam: Nancy Thomas, 1969-2021
In 2016, a masters teammate asked me to take her place in the Escape from Alcatraz relay. I swam, a woman named Jen biked, and Nancy Thomas ran. I had never met Jen or Nancy before that day. We chatted a bit before the start, but mostly, we raced. Nancy was a strong runner, and I would soon learn, a strong social justice activist. Her speed won the race for us that day. And today, March 13, 2022, she infused this organization with new life and the ability to amplify our impact. Let me explain.
After the race, Nancy and I became friends on Facebook. I witnessed news of her day to day life and enjoyed photos of her along with her womens’ running group, participating in various races, including one in which they all dressed like RBG. A few years later, I was saddened to see her announcement that she had an aggressive form of cancer. Via Facebook, I watched her update her loved ones about her fight, which was fierce. In 2020, I got a direct message from her, the first communication we’d had since the race:
“Hi Sarah, I love your Reparations Project and I’m interested in making it one of the beneficiaries of my IRA. Could you send me more information? Thanks, Nancy”
I was honored and heartened by her interest, but I was also deeply saddened. I knew that her message meant she was putting her affairs in order. I wrote her back expressing my concern and gratitude, and explained what Randy and I were working on.
She wrote back to thank me for the information, said she was impressed by what we were doing and that she wanted to support it. “I love that it’s helping people directly. I’ve added The Reparations Project as a beneficiary of my IRA. Of course,” she said, “I hope you don’t get it for a long time!” I, too, hoped we wouldn’t get it for a long time, and I wondered what had moved her to name us as a beneficiary.
Nancy explained that she was from Virginia and while there was no known history of any plantation owners or enslavers that she knew of in the family, there were plenty of her ancestors who fought for the confederacy. Her great-grandmother was in the Daughters of the Confederacy. She also explained that another branch of the family were Quaker abolitionists, which “apparently created some interesting tensions.” She told me that her father received a Jefferson scholarship to UVA and a Rhodes Scholarship, both funded pretty directly by slavery, and from there got a PhD at Harvard. He had met her mother at Harvard. “So,” she told me, “it’s not much of a stretch to say I wouldn’t exist without slavery. More globally, all white people in this country benefit from the wealth accumulated by slavery and the ongoing white privilege whether we see it or not.”
Soon after this exchange, her Facebook posts were about her graceful path toward end of life, and the loving care her partner, Todd Weaver, was giving her. I never got to meet Nancy again, but Nancy was one of those people you only have to meet once to love. She passed away on July 30, 2021.
Then about a month ago, I heard from Todd, who notified me that The Reparations Project (The Quarterman & Keller Foundation) was indeed a beneficiary of Nancy’s IRA. We emailed about our admiration of Nancy and the sadness of her passing. Todd told me that the work of The Reparations Project is a cause that Nancy felt strongly about – that “both she and I have struggled with (and want to do something about) the fundamental racial inequalities in the USA. Property rights, health care, education, voting rights, so many policies in so many areas reflect the systemic racism in a country that has not done nearly enough to acknowledge and heal the damage of slavery.” Todd then patiently walked me through how to make the necessary claim through Vanguard.
Yesterday, The Reparations Project was privileged and honored to receive a check for over $150,000 from Nancy. Randy and I are completely blown away by both Nancy’s and Todd’s generosity and heart, and by their explicit understanding of the systems of white supremacy in this country, and the need to both change our systems, and where possible, redistribute wealth. We believe that Nancy and Todd are shining examples of the power of education and truth telling. Only through understanding the truth of this country’s history, as they do, might more of us understand the inequities that exist and be inspired to do something to change them.
Nancy Thomas will live on forever in this work and we will do our best to promote truth telling in her name.