On Friday, April 21, 2023, family, friends, colleagues and community leaders gathered at Reid’s Golden Gate Funeral Home and Cremation, 5665 N. Teutonia Ave. to honor the legacy of Robert Joseph Thomas, entrepreneur and Milwaukee Community Journal co-founder and associate publisher. Thomas passed away on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, he was 86. Thomas was born in Dyersburg, Tennessee and came to Milwaukee as a pre-schooler as part of the ‘Great Migration.’ He was raised in Calvary Baptist Church, and attended Milwaukee Public Schools, graduating from North Division High School.
While at North, Thomas became a track star and would receive a track scholarship to Marquette University and had trained to be an Olympic hurdler.
Because funds weren’t available, Thomas set aside his dream of becoming a lawyer, leading to a varied business career of many firsts.
The businesses he created—some with his father, J.C. Thomas, one of the first black Milwaukee County bus drivers— were: ‘Robby’s,’ the first franchised fast food hamburger establishment in Milwaukee’s central city. It was the prototype for the entry of McDonald’s, located on North Avenue; Rich Man Poor Man, Ebony Cue Billiards, ‘The Fox Trap,’ the first member-owned Black nightclub; the first video game center on Fond du Lac and Capitol Drive, a location that broke traditional black business norms; and the first black-owned bowling center located in a former A&P food store on Teutonia Avenue. In 1980 Thomas was named Milwaukee’s Black Businessman of the Year.
He was the father of two sons: Dr. Terence Nolan Thomas, who preceded him in death, and Todd ‘Speech’ Thomas, a Grammy Award winning hip-hop artist and creative griot of the African American experience.
Thomas leaves to treasure his life and legacy: son Todd and his devoted wife Yolanda; grandchildren Jahi Terence and Zoe Renee; treasured friend and caregiver Robin Davis; cousins, nieces and nephews; his MCJ family; Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers and many friends and associates. Pictured are State Senator Lena Taylor (left) who presented Robert’s son, Todd ‘Speech’ Thomas (right), with a proclamation.