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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

The Son of Mississippi Slaves Who Fled to Russia and Brought Jazz to Istanbul

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Frederick Bruce Thomas was born in 1872 to former slaves and spent his youth on his family’s prosperous farm in Mississippi. However, a resentful, rich white planter's attempt to steal their land forced them to escape to Memphis. And when Frederick's father was brutally murdered by another black man, the family disintegrated. After leaving the South and working as a waiter and valet in Chicago and Brooklyn, Frederick went to London in 1894, then traveled throughout Europe, and decided to go to Russia in 1899, which was highly unusual for a black American at the time. Frederick found no color line in Russia and made Moscow his home. During the next nineteen years he renamed himself “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas,” married twice, acquired a mistress, took Russian citizenship, and by dint of his talents, hard work, charm, and guile became one of the city’s richest and most famous owners of variety theaters and restaurants. The Bolshevik Revolution ruined him and he barely escaped with his life and family to Turkey in 1919. Starting with just a handful of dollars out of the millions he had lost, Frederick made a second fortune in Constantinople by opening a series of celebrated nightclubs that introduced jazz to Turkey. However, because of the long arm of American racism, the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic, and his own extravagance, he fell on hard times, was thrown into debtor's prison, and died in Constantinople in 1928.

Although widely known during his lifetime, Frederick Thomas is now virtually forgotten. The few references to him that have been published during the past eighty years are all brief and often wrong. Vladimir Alexandrov, today’s guest and author of the book “The Black Russian,” researched Frederick Thomas’s life and times exhaustively in archives and libraries throughout the United States, as well as in Russia, France, England, and Turkey, and found a great deal of information about him.

Frederick Thomas is fascinating because of the extraordinary way he escaped the constraints of his humble origins and being black in the United States, because of how his life went from rags to riches to ruin not once but twice as a consequence of revolutionary transformations in two exotic societies, and because of the contrasting roles that race played in his life abroad--from being invisible in Russia, to returning to haunt him in Turkey, when he most needed help and the American government turned him down.
December 16, 2021
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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