Clarence Thomas was born in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia, a small, predominantly black community near Savannah founded by freedmen after the American Civil War. He was the second of three children born to M.C. Thomas, a farm worker, and Leola Williams, a domestic worker. They were descendants of American slaves, and the family spoke Gullah as a first language. Thomas's earliest-known ancestors were slaves named Sandy and Peggy who were born around the end of the 18th century and owned by wealthy Liberty County, Georgia, planter Josiah Wilson. M.C. left his family when Thomas was two years old. Thomas's mother worked hard but was sometimes paid only pennies per day. She had difficulty putting food on the table and was forced to rely on charity. After a house fire left them homeless, Thomas and his younger brother Myers were taken to live with his maternal grandparents in Savannah, Georgia. Thomas was seven when the family moved in with his maternal grandfather, Myers Anderson, and Anderson's wife, Christine (née Hargrove), in Savannah.
Living with his grandparents, Thomas enjoyed amenities such as indoor plumbing and regular meals for the first time in his life. His grandfather, Myers Anderson, had little formal education, but had built a thriving fuel oil business that also sold ice. Thomas calls his grandfather "the greatest man I have ever known." When Thomas was 10, Anderson started taking the family to help at a farm every day from sunrise to sunset. His grandfather believed in hard work and self-reliance; he would counsel Thomas to "never let the sun catch you in bed." Thomas' grandfather also impressed upon his grandsons the importance of getting a good education.
Raised Catholic, he attended the majority-black St. Pius X high school for two years before transferring to St. John Vianney's Minor Seminary on the Isle of Hope, where he was an honor student and among very few black students. He also briefly attended Conception Seminary College, a Roman Catholic seminary in Missouri. No one in Thomas's family had attended college. In a number of interviews, Thomas stated that he left the seminary in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He had overheard another student say after the shooting, "Good, I hope the son of a bitch died." He did not think the church did enough to combat racism.
At a nun's suggestion, Thomas attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. While there, Thomas helped found the Black Student Union. Once he walked out after an incident in which black students were punished while white students went undisciplined for committing the same violation, and some of the priests negotiated with the protesting black students to re-enter the school.
Having spoken the Gullah language as a child, Thomas realized in college that he still sounded unpolished despite having been drilled in grammar at school, and he chose to major in English literature "to conquer the language." At Holy Cross, he was also a member of Alpha Sigma Nu and the Purple Key Society. Thomas graduated from Holy Cross in 1971 with an A.B. cum laude in English literature.
Thomas had a series of deferments from the military draft while in college at Holy Cross. Upon graduation, he was classified as 1-A and received a low lottery number, indicating he might be drafted to serve in Vietnam. Thomas failed his medical exam, due to curvature of the spine, and was not drafted. Thomas entered Yale Law School, from which he received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree in 1974, graduating towards the middle of his class.
Thomas has recollected that his Yale Juris Doctor degree was not taken seriously by law firms to which he applied after graduating. He said that potential employers assumed he obtained it because of affirmative action policies. (In 1969 Dean Louis Pollak wrote that the law school was expanding its program of quotas for black applicants, with up to 24 entering that year admitted under a system that deemphasized grades and LSAT scores.) According to Thomas, he was "asked pointed questions, unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated."
"I peeled a fifteen-cent sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I'd made by going to Yale. I never did change my mind about its value."