Karen Thomas Transformed Historic African-American Community
The Northeast Neighborhood Association of Harrisonburg, VA founder & president, Karen Thomas, is featured on the cover of the Summer 2019 edition of BLOOM magazine. You can read Karen’s feature story below.
Aug. 20, 1983, is a day that will be forever etched into Karen Thomas’ memory.
That was the day her sister, 28-year-old Sharon Johnson, was brutally beaten to death in the former Campbell Hotel on North Main Street in Harrisonburg. While her sister’s killer was on the loose for nearly 25 years, Thomas became a community activist who fought for justice and helped clean up her beloved Northeast neighborhood.
“That was really a beginning for me, that I wanted to seek justice for her,” Thomas said. “My sister’s case was always a part of wanting to make the wrong right.”
The family was sure Johnson’s killer was Ronald Jerome Jones, who was her boyfriend at the time. Johnson died from her injuries a week after the attack, which allegedly began as an argument over a missing $5 bill, according to a 2007 article in the Daily News-Record. It took authorities more than two decades to find Jones, who fled Harrisonburg and lived on the streets using fake names. But Thomas continued to search for her sister’s killer, consistently visiting the police department and the commonwealth’s attorney’s office over the years.
“It took 25 years to find her murderer, but I never gave up,” she said. “I always had a feeling that they weren’t looking for him.”
Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst reopened the investigation after meeting Thomas in 2005. Garst promised if he was still alive, she would find Johnson’s killer.
“I was really impressed with her passion for her sister and her community,” Garst said. “I believed we had a very strong suspect and I believed I could bring justice to Sharon Johnson’s family.”
Jones’ picture was shown on the television show “America’s Most Wanted” in the show’s “15 Seconds of Shame” segment, which led to dozens of tips.
“All the tips that we got gave us many leads throughout the country,” Garst said. “I think it took a lot of good follow-up and police work, and in the end we were able to bring him to justice.”
Jones was captured in Greensboro, N.C., in 2007 at the age of 52. Later that year, he was sentenced to 40 years for second- degree murder.
Thomas, 61, was born in Grottoes but moved to the Northeast neighborhood — Harrisonburg’s historically African-American community — at the age of 4.
The northeast area of Harrisonburg was originally known as the Newtown community, which was built by freed slaves after the Civil War. Newtown became the home of many prominent African- American figures in the community, including educator Lucy F. Simms and Elon Rhodes, the first African-American to serve on Harrisonburg’s City Council and School Board.
Most of the neighborhood’s original buildings were destroyed during the city’s “urban renewal” efforts in the 1950s and 1960s.
During the early 2000s, the historic Northeast neighborhood suffered from drugs and violent crime. A murder that occurred in 2006 on the corner of Kelley and Myrtle streets hit Thomas especially hard because the victim was a friend’s son. Thomas grew concerned about the safety of her community.
Cleaning Up The Neighborhood
She began to lay the groundwork for the Northeast Neighborhood Association, which became a nonprofit organization in 2006. The group started as a neighborhood watch program but morphed into much more, taking on historic preservation and beautification projects. NENA partnered with the Harrisonburg Police Department and the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office for neighborhood walks. NENA has been credited with helping reduce crime rates through its visibility in the community.
“She was instrumental in cleaning up the community,” said Harrisonburg mayor Deanna Reed.
“There was a time when people were actually afraid to go in the Northeast neighborhood. There was a time when it was drug-infested … and that’s when Karen formed the neighborhood watch. Her and some other community members got together and became more visible in the community.”
Garst agreed that NENA’s walks and other efforts have brought safety back to the Northeast neighborhood.
“She has unified efforts for safety and a sense of community in Harrisonburg,” she said. “I think it’s fostered a sense of community.”
NENA’s meetings on the third Thursday of every month have given residents an outlet to discuss issues in the community, as well as serve as a bridge between the Northeast residents and law enforcement.
“NENA is a conduit for people to voice concerns and make sure all of the issues they’re facing are brought forward,” Garst said.
Historic Preservation Efforts
NENA announced late last year that it had purchased the historic Dallard-Newman House on Kelley Street. The house is currently in the process of being renovated into a museum and library. NENA raised $50,000 through The Community Foundation of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to help fund the project.
The two-story house at 192 Kelley St. was built by former Yancey plantation slaves Ambrose and Reuben Dallard in 1895. The house was passed down to Ambrose Dallard’s daughter Lucy and her husband, Charles Cochran. When they moved out of the home, his other daughter, Mary Dallard, and her husband, George A. Newman Sr., acquired the property. Newman served as a teacher and principal of Newtown’s Effinger School, which educated area black students until 1939 when it was replaced by the Lucy F. Simms School. Simms was a student of Newman.
Mary Carlotta Newman, the daughter of George A. Newman Sr., was the final owner of the home until her death in August 2015 at the age of 103.
The Dallard-Newman House and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church next door are the only buildings in Newtown that survived the city’s “urban renewal” projects, Thomas said.
“That house was so significant to me because there’s very few homes that withstood the urban renewal when it came through and tore a lot of the African-American homes down,” she said. “We don’t know why, but we’re just so thankful that it survived.”
Thomas hopes to tell the history of not just the house, but the Newtown community, through the restoration project. The museum and library is expected to be finished by next year.
“There’s a lot of history here that we want to tell and we feel like NENA and the people that live in this community are the only ones who can truly tell it,” Thomas said. “There’s so much rich history in this community that needs to be told, children need to know about it. They’re starting to get African-American history in the schools because it’s everyone’s history and it hasn’t been told.”
Reed said the Dallard-Newman House project is an important step in preserving the history of the Northeast neighborhood.
“She really wanted a place where our stories could be told,” Reed said.
Thomas’ son, Steven Thomas, is NENA’s part-time restorative justice coordinator who has conducted extensive research into the history of the community.
“He has really helped take NENA to another level when it comes to research and historic aspects,” she said.
The Dallard-Newman House and the Bethel AME church are recognized together as a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, a process initiated by Karen Thomas.
The Newtown Cemetery was placed on the National Register in 2015. Thomas has sat on the board of trustees for five years.
A Community Builder
Thomas also helped establish a community garden in the Northeast neighborhood that was built across the street from the Simms school two years ago. The garden is funded through a grant from The Community Foundation.
“This area was defined as a food insecure area so, we decided we could start a community garden where people can grow their own vegetables and children can come learn how to grow their own food,” she said.
NENA also recently acquired Broad Street Mennonite Church by donation. NENA plans to turn it into a community center while still keeping it as a church.
“It was an honor that they trusted us with the church, just to give it to us,” Thomas said.
Thomas said Broad Street was the first Mennonite church in the area that allowed African-Americans to worship there. She plans to also apply the building for a historic marker.
The nonprofit also acquired the house next to it, which is the original home of Roberta Webb. Thomas’ vision is to eventually make the basement of the church an affordable day care center.
A Lifetime Of Community Service
While Thomas has worked tirelessly on renovation projects and historic markers, she still works full time as a sterile supply officer at the Merck manufacturing plant in Elkton.
Thomas has won numerous awards over the years, including NAACP Citizen of the Year, Commonwealth Attorney’s Citizenship Award in 2013 and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Community Service Award.
“What I’m mostly proud of is bringing people together, like at our gospel concerts, our community yard sales, the community garden and National Night Out,” Thomas said. “That’s the main thing — bringing people together and everyone knowing each other and getting along. I think that’s what I feel most happy about.”
Reed has known Thomas for well over 30 years and considers her to be a mentor.
“I always looked up to Karen because she’s always been a woman who cared about her community,” Reed said. “She has definitely been a leader in the Northeast neighborhood. She’s the reason why the Northeast neighborhood has become so essential to our city and to our community.”
Reed added, “I believe she’s one of our unsung ‘sheroes.’ She does a lot of work and doesn’t ask for any credit for what she’s done. She’s truly been a trailblazer when it comes to being an activist.”
Thomas has moved away from the Northeast neighborhood three different times in her life, but her passion for the community has always brought her back.
“I just love this place,” she said. “I’ve always come home. I really love this community.”
Read more of the magazine in the Issuu below.
Editor’s note: Want to learn more about 400 years of women’s achievements among the African, English, and Virginia Indian cultures? Mark your calendar for the Women’s Achievement Summit happening next month!