William Hannibal Thomas (1843–1935) served with distinction in the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War (in which he lost an arm) and was a preacher, teacher, lawyer, state legislator, and journalist following Appomattox. In many publications up through the 1890s, Thomas espoused a critical though optimistic black nationalist ideology. After his mid-twenties, however, Thomas began exhibiting a self-destructive personality, one that kept him in constant trouble with authorities and always on the run. His book The American Negro (1901) was his final self-destructive act.
Attacking African Americans in gross and insulting language in this utterly pessimistic book, Thomas blamed them for the contemporary “Negro problem” and argued that the race required radical redemption based on improved “character,” not changed “color.” Vague in his recommendations, Thomas implied that blacks should model themselves after certain mulattoes, most notably William Hannibal Thomas.
Black Judas is a biography of Thomas, a publishing history of The American Negro, and an analysis of that book’s significance to American racial thought. The book is based on fifteen years of research, including research in postamputation trauma and psychoanalytic theory on selfhatred, to assess Thomas’s metamorphosis from a constructive race critic to a black Negrophobe. John David Smith argues that his radical shift resulted from key emotional and physical traumas that mirrored Thomas’s life history of exposure to white racism and intense physical pain.
This finely nuanced, dispassionate study of self-imposed racial marginality ranks among the very best of recent biographies and is a major contribution to black intellectual history.
—William L. Van Deburg, American Historical Review
A remarkable research achievement . . . Only a scholar of rare skill and sensitivity could create such a rounded portrait . . . Thomas's work, however repugnant to contemporary minds, needs to be treated in the careful and measured way that Smith approaches the issues.
—Anthony Badger, Cambridge University
Excellent . . . The work is based on a deft examination and analysis of a rich combination of archival, manuscript, and published sources and numerous secondary ones. . . . Smith provides insights into the mind of one of the least understood African Americans during the age of Booker T. Washington.
—Vernon J. Williams Jr., Journal of American History
It took not only skill and perseverance to produce such a work, but it also took courage.
—John Hope Franklin
By introducing modern readers to the strange and sordid history of this repugnant black man, John David Smith alleviates to a considerable degree what Henry Louis Gates has called 'the poverty of our imagination' about the complexities of race in American life.
—Peter A. Coclanis, Reviews in American History
A disturbing book about a disturbing historical character, but the author's treatment of this 'Black Judas' is excellent. Smith's research, analysis, and writing are solid and thought-provoking.
—James Smallwood, Journal of Southern History
The author successfully portrays Thomas as a 'reformer-gone-wrong,' a self-hater whose book was more autobiographical than anything else.
—John Carver Edwards, Library Journal
William Hannibal Thomas is one of the most scandalous figures in African American history. . . . Smith details the physical and emotional deterioration that led Thomas, an occasional lawyer, preacher, and opportunist, to scathingly denounce blacks and provoke rebuke by some of the most prominent black leaders of the time. Although Smith cautions against the temptation to psychoanalyze historic figures, he shows Thomas as a man deeply troubled by racism who ended up essentially writing his autobiography in one of the most hated books of the century.
—Vanessa Bush, Booklist
A significant contribution to the historical literature on race and the intellectual life of African Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is an outstanding biography of William Hannibal Thomas, who found himself buried under a mountain of criticism after the appearance of his book.
—Leonne M. Hudson, American Nineteenth Century History
Well-told and carefully researched . . . Part history, part psychological study, Smith's book resurrects the all-but-forgotten 'American Negro' and is the first work to attempt to study Thomas, an ambitious, tormented man who sabotaged his own success at every turn during a life that spanned ninety-two years.
—Joe Wheelan, Associated Press
Smith tells the story of Thomas and traces his transformation from a champion of his race to one of its most outspoken critics. Smith not only shows how Thomas destroyed himself, but also how his writings affected attitudes of black and white Americans in the early twentieth century.
—Don O'Briant, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
is a deeply researched, gracefully written, and richly detailed treatment of an African American soldier, preacher, lawyer, teacher, trial justice, state legislator, and journalist. A superb book.
—Willard B. Gatewood, author of Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920
is one of the most satisfying, stimulating, and important works I have ever read. The research for this book is nothing short of extraordinary.
—Bruce Clayton, author of W. J. Cash: A Life