Sunrise: September 5, 1924 Sunset: January 23, 2024
Dr. Bezelle Thomas of Bowie, Maryland, passed away peacefully at the age of 99 on Tuesday, January 23, 2024. He was born on September 5, 1924 to Jenny L. Johnson, from Meigs, GA, and Miledge Thomas, a traveling minister and lumberjack, from Waycross, GA. Bezelle was the youngest of 13 children, and the last and longest surviving sibling of the Waycross Thomas Family. At an early age through his teen years, Bezelle worked difficult jobs with his mother and siblings on local farms in South Georgia, often sleeping in the barn atop the cotton they’d picked that day. Motivated by these experiences, the kind hearts of his mother and five sisters, especially the example of his sister Beatrice Thomas, a teacher and the first college graduate in the family, Bezelle set his goals on higher education and a life outside of Waycross. Led by Beatrice, his sisters rallied and supported his education, sending him to Howard University where he studied Chemistry, and then on to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he graduated in 1954 with a degree in medicine.
Bezelle did his internship and residency in Internal Medicine at Binghamton City Hospital as the only Black physician in the hospital, where he met LaVerne Hightower who in turn was the first and only Black RN on staff. LaVerne brought Bezelle home and introduced him to her sister Janice, a beautiful, petite, talented pianist, organist and cellist, as well as president of her class at Bennett College. Wooed by her music and sparkling wit, they married in 1956.
Throughout his life, Bezelle was a champion for justice. He and his young friends secretly challenged Jim Crow by performing risky pranks to frustrate segregationists. Then at Howard University, he joined the Knights of Freedom and fought for justice in the healthcare system. During his short stint in the Army, Bezelle organized a peaceful sit-in on base to protest Black soldiers who were relegated to cleaning up after White soldiers. By the time Bezelle opened his first practice in Syracuse, he knew how to handle the unspoken rule preventing Black doctors from treating patients outside of their race. He defied this practice until referrals from his White partners dwindled forcing him to close his office and leave Syracuse for Pittsburgh, PA.
As Bezelle was creating his career, he was also growing his family. He and his wife Janice gave birth to three children, his son, Daniel, and two daughters Karyn and Susan whom he loved and supported throughout his life. What motivated Bezelle to work hard and provide for his family was to make sure they knew and understood they were not second class citizens, in spite of the racial climate of the time. It was in 1961, when the young Thomas’ faced racial discrimination most directly. With courage and faith, Bezelle and Janice fought and won the first ever housing discrimination lawsuit in Pittsburgh before the Fair Housing Act became law.
Bezelle had an illustrious medical career. When he and Janice relocated to the Washington, D.C. area, he first practiced medicine at Glendale Hospital in Glendale, MD, then in private practice in the District, and on staff at the Northwest Chest Clinic in Washington, D.C. In 1969, after years working days with private patients and nights at the public clinic, Bezelle took a position as Staff Physician at the IBM plant in East Fishkill New York. Encouraged by his wife, Janice, Bezelle returned to Syracuse University to complete a Fellowship in Occupational Medicine, elevating his career to Regional Medical Director, overseeing medical care for IBM employees in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Over the next 20 years, Bezelle would be promoted to Managing Medical Director responsible for the in-house medical care of employees in the eastern half of the United States, instituting what was then a revolutionary, cost cutting approach to medicine called preventative care. Always a charmer, this doctor from Waycross would go on to represent IBM at fundraisers, corporate and government events, and Presidential inaugurations, hosting leaders from the community, Fortune 500 companies, Supreme Court justices, other Presidential appointees, and elected officials.
After retirement from IBM in 1991, Bezelle reinvented himself as a “lifestyle consultant,” to delve more deeply into preventive medicine. His longevity was an intentional result of Bezelle’s strict regime, fitness and nutrition. He married Jacqueline S. Atkins in 1996 and established a home in Silver Spring, Maryland, where they were members of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. for the next 17 years.
A socially active and conscious member of the community, Bezelle was a member of numerous boards and organizations including Greater S.E. Community Hospital (D.C.), Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB); Howard University Cancer Center (D.C.), POTUS advisory council, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, was a founding board member of Healthcare for the Homeless (D.C.), Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and The Consorts (D.C.).
Bezelle enjoyed entertaining at his home, playing Bridge and Bid Whist, competing in tennis into his late 70’s, going to the theater and Blues Alley, holding season tickets to the (former) Washington Redskins and the National Symphony. After playing only Moonlight Sonata for decades, he finally took piano lessons when he was 80 years young.
In 2013, Bezelle was reunited with the love of his life, Janice, until her passing in 2020. They will be laid to rest together in a private ceremony by their three children Daniel Bezelle Thomas (Hong Li Chen), Karyn Janice Thomas (Vernon Hall) , and Susan Kathleen Thomas. He is also survived by five grandchildren William Lampley, Leighton Lampley, Angelina Thomas, Nia Lampley and Carina Thomas; two step-grandchildren Christopher Hall and Nevaeh Hall; and numerous nieces, nephews, cousins, and family friends.
The family would also like to acknowledge those who cared for Mom and Dad over the years as if they were their own parents: Lisa Horton, Alva Lovett, Carolyn and Amos Holiday, Maude-Marie Abayomi-Cole, Donette Walters and June Clark. We love you and are forever grateful for the love and kindness you gave.
The family will receive friends at Beall Funeral Home in Bowie, MD, on Sunday, February 18th from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. The Homegoing will be Monday, February 19th at Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. Viewing will be at 10:00 a.m., the service will commence at 11:00 a.m. with the repast immediately following at the church.
In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate donations to: Meharry Medical College, Institutional Advancement, 1005 Dr. D.B. Todd Jr. Blvd, Nashville, TN 37208. You may also give online by clicking here. Note/Memo: In Memory of Dr. Bezelle Thomas, Class of 1954/Student Emergency Relief Fund.