Skip Navigation

Education and Activism in Gary

A Visit with Jessie Moon Thomas

By Ancella Bickley

Photographs by Michael Keller

Jessie Thomas looking over porch rail
Retired schoolteacher Jessie Thomas enjoys the view from the porch of her home in Gary, where she has lived since 1934. Photograph by Michael Keller.


For Mrs. Jessie Elizabeth Moon Thomas of Gary, education and activism tend to intertwine. This has always been so in her family.

One of the earliest acts pairing education and activism in her family was carried out by "Aunt Rachel," one of her mother's enslaved ancestors, who was taught to read and figure by the slave mistress. Providing Rachel with some education was not an altruistic act on the part of the slave mistress, Mrs. Thomas suggests. Rachel was taught these skills so that she could help with household records, "count the hams in the smokehouse," Mrs. Thomas says with a chuckle. After completing her record-keeping chores for the day, Rachel came back to the slave quarters in the evening and taught reading and arithmetic to the children in the family, although it was illegal to do so. When freedom came, Rachel continued to teach other black children.

Rachel's family built on this head start in education, which they passed down to their descendants. Initially a teacher in Mercer County, Jessie’s grandfather, Cheshire C. Froe, became one of the early black magistrates of McDowell County. Her father, S.B. Moon, was the first principal of a black high school in Gary. "When we started to school, we could [already] read," Jessie Thomas says of herself and her seven siblings. "I was able to skip the first year in school. In those days, we had primer and then the first grade. I went right to the first grade." Though her family never had good clothes or a lot of money, she says, “we always had the best of books. My grandfather always made sure that we had books. My daddy always got free books, you know, samples of books."

A teacher for 42 years, Mrs. Thomas followed in her mother's footsteps when she enrolled at Bluefield State College in 1931 and, later, began to teach. "My mother was in the first graduating class at Bluefield State in 1903," she recalls. After finishing at Bluefield, her mother, Martha "Mattie" Froe, began teaching at Gary. This is where Mattie met and married Saunders Moon, a graduate of the Virginia Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University) in Petersburg, Virginia, and a graduate of law school in Pittsburgh. "My father had a friend here, Thomas Whittico. They'd known each other down in Virginia. Tom Whittico was the editor and publisher of the black newspaper, The McDowell Times, and he persuaded my father to come to Keystone.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.