Franklin A. Thomas

Franklin Augustine Thomas (born May 27, 1934) is an American businessman and philanthropist who was president and CEO of the Ford Foundation[1] from 1979 until 1996.[2] Since leaving the foundation, Thomas has continued to serve in leadership positions in American corporations and has been on the board of the TFF Study Group, a nonprofit institution assisting development in South Africa[3] since 2005. Thomas was Chairman of the nonprofit organization September 11 Fund from 2001 to 2004[2][3] and has been involved in the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, serving as the manager of its American office.[4][5]

Franklin A. Thomas
Franklin Augustine Thomas

(1934-05-27) May 27, 1934 (age 86)
EducationColumbia University (BA, LLB)
OccupationBusinessman, philanthropist
Known forfirst African American to lead the Ford Foundation

Early life and educationEdit

Franklin Augustine Thomas was born on May 27, 1934 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.[6] After the death of his father, his mother, Viola, an immigrant from Barbados, headed the household where he was the youngest of six children as a housekeeper and waitress.[7] He attended the Franklin K. Lane High School. Thomas graduated from Columbia College in 1956, where he was a star basketball player and the first African-American captain of an Ivy League team. He later graduated from the Columbia Law School 1963 after a stint in the Air Force.[8][6]


Franklin Thomas worked as an attorney for the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency (now HUD) in 1963. Thomas was named Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1964.[3] He later served as Deputy Police Commissioner in Charge of Legal Matters for the New York City Police Department for two years, starting in 1965;[3] he was the first African-American to hold the position.[1] Thomas was the first president and chief executive officer of Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a non-profit community development corporation, from 1967 to 1977.[9] As president and CEO, Thomas led the organization renovating the exteriors of 3,682 buildings and 123 established businesses, and helped create 3,300 new jobs in the 96-block area.[8]

After leaving the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Thomas headed a study policy toward South Africa for the Ford Foundation recommending peaceful change. Alan J. Pifer, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, deemed it "brilliant."[8] In 1979, Thomas became the first African-American to head a major foundation when he became president of the Ford Foundation, succeeding McGeorge Bundy. As president, he examined the organization's structure, financing and grant-making practices and created a six-part agenda that was intended to regain managerial and financial control which led to mass firings in 1982 prompting criticism from the trustees.[10][8] In 1996, he left the Ford Foundation to concentrate on the problems and opportunities of South Africa. During his tenure as president, he grew the foundation's portfolio of assets to over $6.5 billion; created new programs including the nation’s largest community development support organization, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC); and expanded its global reach.[11]

In October 2001, Thomas was appointed the Chairman of the September 11 Fund, which was created to support the victims, families, and communities affected by the September 11 attacks.[12][13] He held the position until 2004, overseeing the collection of $534 million and awarding 559 grants totaling $528 million.[13]

Board of directorsEdit

In their article published in the Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, Fowler, Fronmueller and Schifferdecker argued that Thomas was one of eight Citigroup Inc.,[2] directors who served on interlocking directorates.[14]:28

Thomas has served on the board of directors of Cummins, Inc., Lucent Technologies, Inc., Alcoa[2] CBS and PepsiCo, Inc.[15]

He is also the second African American to be elected to the Board of Trustees of Columbia University, after fellow Columbia College alumnus Milton Moran Weston II.[16][17]


In 2016, John Jay College established the Franklin A. Thomas Professorship in Policing Equity with $2.5 million in grants from the Ford Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies.[18].

In 2020, Thomas was portrayed by Jay Ellis on the FX and Hulu series Mrs. America.[19]

Personal lifeEdit

Thomas married Dawn Conrada, later divorcing in 1972. The couple had four children: two boys and two girls.[6] From 1971 to 1974, Thomas was romantically involved with Gloria Steinem after she interviewed him for an article in New York magazine.[20][21] He later married Kate Roosevelt Whitney. Whitney is the daughter of James Roosevelt, granddaughter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harvey Cushing. After her mother divorced James Roosevelt, she remarried to John Hay Whitney, who adopted the daughter.[22][23][24]


  1. ^ a b Roberts, Sam (2016-03-21). "U.C.L.A. Center on Police-Community Ties Will Move to John Jay College". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
  2. ^ a b c d Potter, Joan (2009-11-24). African American Firsts: Famous Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks in America. Dafina Books. pp. 104–. ISBN 978-0-7582-4166-5. Retrieved 5 May 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d "Mr. Franklin A. Thomas". United Nations Office for Partnerships. Retrieved 4 September 2014.
  4. ^ "Nelson Mandela Child Fund USA | Better Business Bureau® Profile". Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  5. ^ "Blog Archives". Nelson Mandela Childrens Fund. Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  6. ^ a b c Kifner, John (1979-01-30). "From Brooklyn Restoration to Ford FoundationMan in the News". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  7. ^ "Born in a Brooklyn Slum, Frank Thomas Discovers You Can Go Home Again—and Fix It Up". Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  8. ^ a b c d Teltsch, Kathleen (1982-10-10). "Streamlining the Ford Foundation". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  9. ^ Spellen, Suzanne (May 24, 2011). "Bed Stuy Brooklyn History". Brownstoner. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  10. ^ Shapiro, Walter (1981-07-04). "A Troubled Ford Foundation". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  11. ^ "Head of Ford Foundation to Step Down : Philanthropy: Franklin Thomas is departing after 17 years at the helm of nation's largest nonprofit charitable organization. He instituted major programs". Los Angeles Times. 1994-12-10. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  12. ^ "SEPTEMBER 11: The Philanthropic Response" (PDF). Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  13. ^ a b Candid. "September 11 Fund to Close". Philanthropy News Digest (PND). Retrieved 2020-04-21.
  14. ^ Fowler, Karen L.; Fronmueller, Michael; Schifferdecker, Jane O. (2014). "Mapping Interlocking Directorates: Citigroup's Eight Links with the Mortgage Crisis" (PDF). Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics. 11 (1): 26–33.
  16. ^ McCaughey, Robert A. (June 2012). Stand, Columbia : A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-50355-5. OCLC 1062941720.
  17. ^ "Franklin A. Thomas '63: A Lifetime of Leading Change". Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  18. ^ "First Named Professorship Established At John Jay With Funding From Ford Foundation And Atlantic Philanthropies". John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 2016-03-22. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  19. ^ Gonzales, Erica. "Frank Thomas, Seen in Mrs. America, Is a History-Maker Too". Haper's Bazaar. The Hearst Corporation. Retrieved 16 July 2020.
  20. ^ Wittekind, Erika (2011-09-01). Gloria Steinem: Women's Liberation Leader. ABDO Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-61787-865-7.
  21. ^ Kramer, Jane. "Gloria Steinem's Life on the Feminist Frontier". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2020-04-20.
  22. ^ Harmon, F. Martin, 1951- Verfasser. The Roosevelts and their descendants : portrait of an American family. pp. 176–178. ISBN 978-1-4766-6843-7. OCLC 1011417981.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  23. ^ "John Hay Whitney Foundation | The HistoryMakers". Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  24. ^ Johnson, Richard (2014-05-16). "Obama's nifty trick to arrive on time". Page Six. Retrieved 2020-05-29.