Justice Clarence Thomas Had a Very Different Upbringing from His Current Lavish Lifestyle

John Oliver offered Clarence Thomas $1 million per year if he retires. Perhaps Clarence’s parents can shed light on who he is.

Jamie Lerner - Author

Feb. 20 2024, Published 6:15 p.m. ET

Justice Clarence Thomas
Source: Getty Images

Throughout his over 30-year tenure as a Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas has remained a controversial figure. He’s a Black man with complicated parents who has spoken out against racism, but his politics are so far right that he’s considered the most conservative Supreme Court Justice to date. At 75 years old, he’s also the oldest member of the Supreme Court, followed by Justice Samuel Alito.

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In addition, many investigations have found that he’s accepted high-priced gifts (without disclosing them) from people such as Harlan Crow and Anthony Welters, both of whom have reason to try to keep Clarence on the Supreme Court for as long as possible. In Feb. 2024, John Oliver offered Clarence $1 million per year if he retires. His penchant for gifts may be explained by his upbringing and his parents.

Justice Clarence Thomas MoveOn.Org truck billboard to recuse himself
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Clarence Thomas’s parents came from a unique background.

Clarence was born in 1948 in his parents’ wooden shack in Pin Point, Georgia. His mom, Leola Williams (née Anderson), was born out of wedlock. When her mother died, she went to live with her aunt in Pin Point. Clarence’s family comes from a long line of enslaved people. In fact, Pin Point was actually founded by freedmen in the 1880s after they were released from slavery.

When Clarence was born, he and his family spoke Gullah, which was Leola’s first language. Leola got pregnant with Clarence’s older sister, Emma, when she was in 10th grade. Because of this, Leola was kicked out of the Baptist church and dropped out of high school. Despite these seemingly tricky circumstances, her father, Myers Anderson, was actually quite well-off because of a successful coal, oil, and ice delivery business.

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Leola Thomas Williams' cinderblock house in Savannah
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Myers forced Leola to marry M.C. Thomas, Clarence’s father, after she got pregnant. They stayed married for three years, in which they then had Clarence and his younger brother, Myers. But by 1950, M.C. sued for divorce and claimed that Leola neglected their children. Ironically, he’s the one who actually neglected them when he moved to Savannah and then Pennsylvania. He only visited them once after he moved, and was not involved in their lives at all.

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Clarence Thomas wasn’t really raised by his parents.

While Leola wanted to raise her children, she was very young and had to work as a maid in Savannah to support them. So, her aunt was actually awarded custody of Clarence and his siblings after Leola’s divorce. But in 1955, Leola’s aunt’s house in Pin Point burned down, so Leola took Clarence and M.C. with her to a small tenement apartment in Savannah, while Emma stayed in Pin Point.

Clarence Thomas getting sworn in in 1991
Source: Getty Images
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However, Leola had trouble balancing raising her boys and doing her job, so she asked her father for help. He refused at first, but when his wife threatened to kick him out, he took them in as his own sons. It was the first time Clarence lived with modern amenities, such as plumbing, so it’s no surprise that he enjoys lavish gifts today.

While Clarence has said that his grandfather is most responsible for shaping who he is today, the effects of that are evident. Myers sent Clarence to Catholic schools and stressed the importance of hard work, resorting to frequent beatings to instill those values into Clarence and M.C. He also believed that racial segregation was a “violation of divine law,” which explains Clarence’s hard-line values in both conservative religion and racial equality.

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