Sunday, October 7, 2007

Chicago Tribune Article

A good profile of Justice Thomas's birthplace: Justice moved through 2 worlds; Thomas' story starts in tiny Pinpoint, Ga.:
It is easy to miss the tiny community where Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas once lived. There is a sign at the turnoff noting that he was born here. But Pinpoint, on the outskirts of Savannah, has never been much more than a two-lane road lined with moss-covered oak trees and a handful of houses.

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Many of the 200 or so people who live in Pinpoint are related to Thomas in some way, whether through blood or heritage. They are forever linked through their ancestors -- descendants of West African slaves who were brought to the Georgia, Florida and South Carolina coasts during the 1700s to work the rice fields.

"If you are a gentleman raised in Pinpoint, you are called a homeboy. Clarence Thomas is just another homeboy. You don't ever get the fanfare you would get in other places," said Bishop Thomas Sills, pastor of Sweet Field of Eden Baptist Church in Pinpoint, where Thomas' mother and sister are members.

Others, particularly young men, say they feel no bond with the powerful man in Washington who wears a black robe and makes critical decisions that affect their lives, whether they realize it or not.

"How can you have something in common with somebody you don't know?" said Mike Williams, a 25-year-old landscaper who grew up in Pinpoint.

When Thomas occasionally returns to Pinpoint, where his sister and her family still live, people cordially say hello and keep moving. When people gather on each other's front porches as they often do on hot afternoons, the discussion rarely, if ever, turns to Thomas or his court decisions.

Little sign of Thomas

John Taylor, 53, said people who live in Pinpoint, for the most part, have been unaffected by Thomas' celebrity. Thomas does sponsor a youth basketball team here. Other than the street sign, there is little else that indicates his roots are deeply implanted here.

"It's the same here as it has always been," said Taylor, who is unemployed and has lived in Pinpoint his entire life. "People must like him, though, because nobody has anything bad to say about him."

When Thomas was in Pinpoint recently filming a segment for CBS' "60 Minutes," Taylor said he happened upon him.

"I just said 'Hi' and he said 'Hello,'" Taylor said. "I didn't try to shake his hand or anything."

It is a contrast to the adoration he receives in the predominantly white Catholic community in Savannah, where Bishop Kevin Boland, who heads the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, credits the early exposure to Franciscan nuns and Catholic teachings with laying the foundation for Thomas' success.

"We are conscious of the fact that he went to Catholic grade school, Catholic high school and a Catholic college," said Boland, one of Thomas' former high school math teachers. "He has been before our eyes all the time, and in a sense we look at him as a product of Catholic education, which would be a foundation of all that followed."

In this neighborhood of mostly white Catholics who knew Thomas from his days at the now-closed St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, the high school where he once studied to become a priest, the Supreme Court justice is treated like a superstar.

Betty Purdy, the 82-year-old receptionist at the diocese office, gets excited when she speaks of Thomas, though she rarely came in contact with him when he was a student in St. John and she was a secretary.

When Thomas' brother died in 2000, Purdy went to the wake. When the justice returned to Savannah for a class reunion in 2004, Purdy was one of the first to greet him.

"We were in the lobby of a hotel for the reunion, and I walked up to him and gave him a hug," she said. "We didn't talk long because they were starting their reunion. They wanted to get together."

Thomas excelled in academics and athletics at St. John, where for a while he was the only black student. But issues of race always simmered under the surface and occasionally bubbled over the top.

Thomas wrote of once asking classmates to sign his yearbook, and one senior wrote, "Keep on trying, Clarence, one day you will be as good as us."

Despite his success, Thomas wrote, the hurt and insecurities he experienced growing up remain with him today. Revisiting Pinpoint, an isolated 25-acre peninsula about 10 miles southeast of Savannah, reminded him of that.

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