SPRINGFIELD — Henry Thomas, who presided over the Urban League of Springfield for almost a half-century, announced his retirement on Wednesday.
“I have had the privilege to spend my entire career supporting the Springfield community and creating countless spaces where our community can thrive, grow, and achieve excellence,” he wrote in a letter announcing his decision. “My dream has always been to serve, and I am so honored to have spent my life’s work with a civil-rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment, equality, and social justice.”
Thomas was named one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2023, and will be honored at a gala on April 27.
He joined the Urban League in 1971 as youth coordinator. In 1974, at age 25, he became the nation’s youngest leader of a national Urban League affiliate. One of his key areas of focus throughout his career has been education, and not just through Urban League programs; he also served for 13 years on the UMass Amherst board of trustees — including two and a half years as board chair — and was a co-founder of New Leadership Charter School.
In all Urban League initiatives — its programs include education and youth-development initiatives, as well as programs for economic and workforce development, health and wellness, and seniors — Thomas has been driven by an understanding of the importance of equity.
“No equity, no excellence,” he told BusinessWest recently. “I always had a feeling that things could be better, as it relates to equity, everyone getting the treatment that others are getting.”
Also in the vein of education and workforce development, Thomas established Step Up Springfield, a teacher-development program in Springfield; is funding (along with his wife, Dee, a former teacher and principal herself) a $50,000 scholarship for Black youth from Springfield; and tackled a two-year assignment with the National Urban League as its vice president for Youth Development, with a primary focus of youth development within inner-city communities.
Another one of Thomas’ successes was bringing Camp Atwater in North Brookfield — the oldest overnight camp for Black youth in the U.S. — back to life in 1980 after a period of dormancy. The camp celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021.
In yesterday’s letter, Thomas said he will advise the organization as it embarks on a search for its next leader.
“I want to express my gratitude to the staff and board for their incredible support as we have worked to transform the Urban League of Springfield,” he wrote. “As I reflect on over 50 years in my role, there is so much that brings me joy. Together, we have transformed the organization’s fundraising from thousands of dollars to millions of dollars, over $5 million and counting. In my new role as an advisor to the Urban League, I will continue to support the fundraising for this historic establishment.
“It has been an honor to work with and learn from committed and enthusiastic staff and colleagues over the years,” Thomas went on. “I thank the Urban League dream team and board members for their support and am appreciative beyond measure to our grantee partners, community organizations and leaders, philanthropy colleagues, public officials, and private business partners for enriching my efforts. You all have been inspirational allies in our fight for equality and social justice in the Springfield community and beyond.”