Entrepreneur and Milwaukee Community Journal co-founder and Associate Publisher Robert Joseph Thomas passed away Wednesday. He was 86.
A natural ‘teaser,’ Thomas loved to talk politics and the issues facing the city, nation and world with members of the MCJ staff and friends. He was also an avid chess player (and a darn good one), and an incredibly wise man.
Many of the community’s leaders today remember Thomas for his high expectations of success, and his commitment to growing strong men and families.
Thomas was born in Dyersburg, Tennessee and came to Milwaukee as a pre-schooler as part of the ‘Great Migration.’ He was raised in Calvary Baptist Church, and attended Milwaukee Public Schools, graduating from North Division High School.
While at North, Thomas became a track star under the guidance of the school’s track coach Calvin Beckett. He received a track scholarship to Marquette University and had trained to be an Olympic hurdler.
Because funds weren’t available, Thomas set aside his dream of becoming a lawyer, leading to a varied business career of many firsts.
The businesses he created—some with his father, J.C. Thomas, one of the first Black Milwaukee County bus drivers—were:
‘Robby’s,’ the first franchised fast food hamburger establishment in Milwaukee’s central city. It was the prototype for the entry of McDonald’s, located on North Avenue; Rich Man Poor Man, Ebony Cue Billiards, ‘The Fox Trap,’ the first member-owned Black nightclub; the first video game center on Fond du Lac and Capitol Drive, a location that broke traditional Black business norms; and the first Black-owned bowling center located in a former A&P food store on Teutonia Avenue.
In 1980 Thomas was named Milwaukee’s Black businessman of the year.
Another business Thomas owned—and started in 1974—was ‘Robby’s Catering,’ a million dollar business that fed children in Milwaukee public schools and senior facilities.
However, it was crushed by allegations of fraud, as reported by the former Milwaukee Journal (now Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
A federal investigation found no misuse or misappropriation of funds. But the legal fees to fight the allegations totally destroyed a viable Black business that was employing people, creating new businesses and wealth in Black Milwaukee.
Thomas was also the youth director at the North Central YMCA under the late Robert Starms. They led the ‘Youth Brick Campaign,’ where youth and adults were encouraged to donate a brick toward the construction of the North Central Y, located on 12th Street and North Avenue.
He was also one of the first Black vendors at Summerfest with ‘Robby’s Corn Roast,’ which his family continues to run at the nationally known music event on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Thomas fathered two sons: Dr. Terence Nolan Thomas, who preceded him in death, and Todd ‘Speech’ Thomas, a Grammy Award winning Hip Hop artist and creative griot of the African American experience.
He is also preceded in death by his beloved mother, Ardenia Reed Churn; his father, J.C.; stepmother Bernice Thomas, sister Beverly Njuguna, and brother Anthony.
Thomas leaves to treasure his life and legacy: son Todd and his devoted wife Yolanda, grandchildren Jahi Terence and Zoe Renee, treasured friend and caregiver Robin Davis, cousins, nieces and nephews, his MCJ family, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers and many friends and associates.
Funeral services are pending.