Onward: An Interview with Deputy Mayor Judy Thomas

Judy Thomas started her new job as the Deputy Mayor of Neighborhood Engagement the day after Martin Luther King Day of 2021. From her corner office on the 25th floor of the City County Building, she can look down at the City and watch as it continues developing before her eyes. The pandemic and racial unrest have taken much from communities around the country, but they have also given much in return. A shift in priorities, the ability to have difficult conversations and move forward with healing old wounds are all on the table. There is much work to be done, but also a lot of opportunities to do so, and a hope that these opportunities will bear much fruit. Thomas is at the heart of some of Indy’s most ambitious projects that will help address income and opportunity disparities, and reduce crime. She is also a self confessed lover of print magazines, fashion, old books and jazz. And she’s got stories for days. I was fortunate to spend a few minutes with Thomas, and get a tiny glimpse of her rich family history, and wealth of experience she brings to her role as Deputy Mayor.

Photography by Polina Osherov
Style by Katie Freeman
Makeup by Ja’Twon Henderson (Aesthetic Artist Agency)
Cover design by Carrie Kelb

Photography by Polina Osherov; Style by Katie Freeman; Makeup by Ja'Twon Henderson (Aesthetic Artists); Cover design by Carrie Kelb

Polina Osherov: Thank you for making time. I know how incredibly busy you are! You’ve got such an interesting background and history, an unusual blending of interests and skills. You’re a fashionista, you are the Deputy Mayor and you’re on eleven different Boards…You’re a… What’s the word? 

JT: Crazy?

PO: A renaissance woman! (laughter)

JT: Oh, that’s funny. You know what, I appreciate the compliment and I’m now realizing that I’m gonna be on the digital cover, I had no idea. God, I hope you guys have some really good stylists and a makeup artists. I’m almost 55 you know…But I own every inch of it.

PO: Don’t you worry about a thing! We’ve got you covered! Where did you grow up? Why is personal history so important?

JT: I grew up in Gary in the ’70s, and then moved here in the ’80s. But Gary was pretty much an all-Black city back then. So when I grew up, we did the National Anthem, Pledge of Allegiance, and then the Negro National Anthem. We all had a sense of pride about that. I’ve always grown up with a very solid sense of who I am and where I come from, so in general I believe that knowing your history is very important. Yet, I’m finding that a lot of people don’t know their family history and they don’t realize that their people – no matter whether they’re famous or not – were trailblazers, or you wouldn’t be here. This is especially true for African-Americans. Laws that have been against us, neighborhoods we couldn’t move into, schools we couldn’t go to, water fountains we couldn’t drink from, education we didn’t have access to.

PO: Indianapolis has a pretty incredible history when it comes to the contributions of African Americans to our culture and history. Who sticks out to you that not a lot of people might know about?

I’ve been learning so much about Indiana Avenue, its rich history, and the amazing people that are associated with it, not just musicians and performers; but people who were activists, lawyers, people that created change. People who returned to create change. People that came to educate folks. People like Lillian Thomas Fox, who was a writer in the 1880s and 1890s. She wrote for the Indianapolis Freeman, a leading national black newspaper at the time. In 1900 Fox joined the Indianapolis News, becoming the first African-American columnist to regularly write for a white newspaper in Indiana. She was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 2014. That people could overcome incredible obstacles and flourish is incredibly inspiring to me.

PO: I know you love to read. What are you reading right now?

I read a lot. You know how I love my fashion magazines! But I’m really into rare books right now. I have a book from 100 years ago, Negros in the Great War. There are several men from Indiana and Indianapolis in this book that fought in the Great War. And there are some stories about the 28th Regiment, the only colored troop out of the state of Indiana that fought in the Civil War and came back and settled in Norwood. To think of all the stories that are to be found in that neighborhood, that community, and the people that have come out of there and the generations that are still there. Just incredible. Did you know they didn’t get paved streets ’til 1971?

PO: What’s one project that you’re working on right now that you’re really excited and inspired to see come to fruition?

JT: There are so many projects, it’s hard to pick just one! 2020 saw a lot of inequities be unveiled, and now people are actually ready to have the conversations that we should have had 100 years ago. Had we had these conversations 100 years ago, can you imagine what this country would be like?

That said, I’m really excited about the plans that the Office of Public Health and Safety, who I work closely with, is putting into motion to combat violence with help from some of the grassroots organizations, and ministers that have already been doing the work to help make our neighborhoods a safe place to live. It’s gonna take time, and it’s gonna take a collaborative approach to work. It can’t just be the City, or just the Office of Public Health and Safety, it needs to be everybody.

I’ve also been working with the Office of Minority and Women Business Development on finding ways to get more women entrepreneurs to show up and to be able to get them connected to projects in this city, to be a part of rebuilding this city and making it even stronger and better. I love seeing women flourish.

PO: What event are you really looking forward to attending, or want to recommend our readers to check out this month?

JT: The Eiteljorg has a lecture about Black cowboys on February 17 that I would love to go see, but I already know that I’m booked for something else that day. That’s my problem. I can never really make plans! I bought season tickets to The Cabaret last year, but only went to two of the events because I’m booked for something just about every night. But that’s part of the job, and the priority. There’s also an incredible exhibit at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. People might not know, but Benjamin Harrison did a lot to really connect Black folks to opportunities. So there’s a wonderful history about his connection to some of the progressive things that were going on at that time, and that’s lasting through I think November.

PO: What’s the most surprising thing about working at the mayor’s office? 

JT: I have been at a lot of really fun jobs, busy jobs, jobs that have been at the center of everything, right? But this one right here, how hard people work, how many smart people are working there, how many people are really committed and passionate about making a difference? It’s actually given me faith in this next generation; they are so engaged! I’m gonna be honest, I don’t know anybody in my generation, in my peer group, people that I know and love and hang out with that are that engaged and know what’s going on. It was great to see how well everybody works together and really wanting to make a difference in this city, that has been refreshing.

PO: What’s a typical day for you look like? 

JT: Lots and lots of phone and Zoom calls. I love sleeping, but man, I love working. So as soon as I get up, I’m heading to the office ready to tackle another day. My first meeting is usually around 8 or 8:30am, and I can easily be at my desk till 8 or 9 o’clock. There are also lots of events to go to as well. I’ve done at least 60 speeches in the year that I’ve had this job. Everything from the Chinese New Year to a salon opening to Black History Month. Thank God for our scheduler Pam Aitken!

PO: Where did your love of fashion come from? 

JT: Definitely from my father! He was born in 1929, grew up in Gary, and was a jazz fan. That was his era. So at fourteen years old, he would go to Chicago to the Regal Theater to see Billy Eckstine, and those jazz guys, head to toe, clean, right? Always. So of course my dad wanted to dress just like that. When he grew up, he worked the railroad so that he could go buy a silk pant and tie. He liked the best of the best. He wore Brioni suits, everything from ties, to socks had to coordinate. I have Louis Vuitton bags from forty, fifty years ago, because he was buying that stuff back then, he just loved quality. We took New York trips together and shopped at Bergdorf Goodman and in Chicago on Michigan Avenue Bonwit Teller. There was a store called Ultimo on Oak Street in Chicago that my dad went to all the time, and the guy who ran it was from Muncie, Indiana! My dad loved people with style, and he used to say, “When I’d see an old man dress sharp, or a woman with style, I’d just want to be able to take a picture.” And I’m thinking, Oh my gosh, you’re like Bill Cunningham!

I remember us walking down Oak Street in Chicago once, and we saw this stylish Black woman, but you could tell that she was struggling. She had on a silk shirt but her clothes were a little frayed and my dad said, “Look how sharp she is. Look how sharp she is in her style and her pride in herself.” She was walking down one of the most exclusive streets in Chicago, if not the country, with style and pride, and that’s what he loved.

He’d also take me to jazz clubs, and sneak me in before I was 21. We’d go see Broadway shows. He could talk his way into anywhere and you’d think he was from the Upper East Side, mixing and mingling. My dad also bought me my first Vogue and I think Beverly Johnson was on the cover. We read Town and Country a lot, and then watched Elsa Klensch on CNN Saturday morning. So yeah, my dad is the reason for my love of the finer things in life!

PO: Who are some of your favorite fashion designers? 

JT: There are so many talented new folks, but I’m kind of old school… love Donna Karan, when she was designing for Anne Klein, when she did her turtleneck with the tunic tight black skirt. I fell in love. I love Giorgio Armani and those subtle clean lines. And now to see fashion change to try to include everybody, it’s been a long time coming. Valentino just did a fashion show and had women of all sizes and colors and ages. I love that! I think older women are the sharpest women there are.

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