Dr. John Telford. educator, athlete, author

By Dr. John Telford 

One of the most egregious incidents of racism in a suburban school setting in Michigan occurred recently.  I’m not referring to the well-publicized wars of the 1980s and 1990s I waged with raucous community racists in Rochester when I decided to become a one-man affirmative action department pioneering the hire of Black principals and directors in Oakland County. 

I’m also not referring to the equally well-publicized battles I fought in 2009 against resident racists in Madison Heights District Public Schools before I was fired in front of whirring TV cameras for bringing in hundreds of DPS students during my brief stint there as the oldest superintendent in the United States.  

No—I’m talking about a far less publicized racist incident that happened in the all-white Howell school district around the same time as my somewhat similar Madison incident, but it had its origins three years earlier.  Dr. Charles Breiner has confirmed that as Howell superintendent in 2006, he recruited Robert Thomas—the stellar DPS administrator who won three Outstanding Educator Awards as assistant principal at Murray-Wright—to become the principal of a new high school that was being built in Howell.  There were construction delays, so Breiner temporarily assigned Thomas to a middle school assistant principalship until the building could be completed.  Thomas then became the district’s first Black administrator. 

Educator Robert Thomas

When word got out to the Howell school staff and community that their liberal superintendent had selected a Black man from Detroit to become the new school’s principal, parents withheld their children from enrolling in the still unfinished structure.  Thus, there wouldn’t be enough students coming in for it to open. 

The progressive superintendent was summarily fired, and prospective principal Thomas was told to find work elsewhere.  He sought to return to DPS but was advised that we were only hiring administrators who were bilingual, which Mr. Thomas isn’t—and the bottom had dropped out of the state budget, so there was little work to be had in most districts. 

Mr. Thomas informs me that one day his principal came to him and told him she had been ordered to fabricate an unsatisfactory evaluation of him to get him out of Howell without further delay, and if he ever told anyone about this she would have to deny it or lose her job. 

After Howell unjustly terminated Mr. Thomas in 2009, he learned that for the years he was there he had been underpaid, while White administrators at the same level were paid more.  The Howell district fought to deny him unemployment compensation but lost because it couldn’t prove the untrue allegations regarding his job performance.  As a result, Thomas says, “The Howell district has been on a campaign to blackball me in the tri-county area.” 

Auction of KKK items in Howell a few years ago created an uproar; the town tried to counteract its image as the home of Robert Miles, Michigan KKK leader afterwards; apparently racism is still rampant there

This past summer, Thomas was a finalist for several administrative positions in Oakland and Macomb Counties.  After they contacted Howell, he was dropped from consideration.  He had someone pose as an employer and call Howell about his qualifications.  His “plant” was told falsely that he was “less than qualified” to administrate, but “the kids loved him.”  Being good with kids is of course essential.   Coach Robert Glenn, who taught Bob Thomas in junior high and later worked with him and for him, says he was one of DPS’ best.  Some lucky school district should hire Thomas fast.  In the meantime, he also needs to call Geoffrey Fieger. 

Get Dr. Telford’s explosive autobiography and his newest book, What OLD MEN Know, at  Write him at 8900 E. Jefferson, #624, Detroit 48214.

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