Joseph J. Thomas, 85, Advocate for Diversity and Bloomingdale’s Veteran, Dies

Joseph J. Thomas, an advocate for diversity and a 43-year veteran of Bloomingdale’s, died at the age of 85 on Sunday at NYU Langone Hospital in New York.

Thomas died of natural causes, according to his wife of 19 years, Halcyone Bullen-Thomas.

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A viewing and funeral mass will be held Tuesday beginning at 9 a.m. at the Cathedral Basilica of St. James, 250 Cathedral Place by Jay Street in Brooklyn.

Born April 26, 1938, in Opelousas, La., Thomas served in the army before joining Bloomingdale’s in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement. Thomas worked for Bloomingdale’s for 43 years, serving as a buyer before rising to become the store’s operating vice president for diversity and community service. Thomas was Bloomingdale’s first Black buyer and the company’s first Black corporate operating vice president, according to the family.

He supported the careers of numerous Black professionals at Bloomingdale’s, as well as in the industry at large, by joining the Black Retail Action Group, also known as BRAG, in 1970. He became a board member in 1974 and in 1980 rose to president of the organization, which he led until 1995. During his tenure, the organization raised thousands of dollars from retailers, and awarded college scholarships to hundreds of Black students from around the country. The organization is the oldest active retail and fashion organization devoted to equity and inclusion for Black people, Indigenous people and people of color.

Earlier this year, the High School of Fashion Industries in New York renamed its annual career fair The JJ Thomas Career Day in recognition of Thomas’ impact and devotion to the school. BRAG named an award after him — The JJ Thomas Innovators Award — which recognizes the achievements of new businesses.

Thomas remained with Bloomingdale’s until his retirement in 2008 and retired from the BRAG board two years later, when he joined BRAG’s advisory board.

Always seen with his camera, Thomas captured shifts in the industry, especially when it came to groundbreaking moments in diversity. Many of his photographs date back to the ’70s — a time when Black people were just starting to be included at management and executive levels in the industry.

Thomas lived in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. He is survived by his wife, his stepson Jamal Lanham, his sister Elizabeth Lazard, and several nieces and nephews.

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