(CNN) — Jefferson Thomas, one of the so-called “Little Rock Nine,” the nine students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, has died, according to Carlotta Walls LaNier, president of the group’s foundation. He was 67.
Thomas died of pancreatic cancer on Sunday, the Little Rock Nine Foundation said in a statement. He was living in Columbus, Ohio.
As a 15-year-old, Thomas was one of the nine African-American students who braved segregationist mobs to integrate the all-white school under the protection of military forces.
A retired federal accountant for the Department of Defense, Thomas “had spent the last decade of his life doing community service, traveling to promote racial harmony and supporting young people in seeking higher education,” the foundation said. In 1999, he and the others received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Bill Clinton.
“The eight who accompanied Jefferson to Central High all expressed their heartfelt sadness at the passing of the man they called their brother in a unique group for the past 53 years,” the statement said. The nine have remained close, and through their foundation they provided college scholarships and mentoring to students.
“I will miss his calculated sense of humor,” said LaNier, another member of the nine. “He had a way of asking a question and ending it with a joke, probably to ease the pain during our teenage years at Central. He was a Christian who sincerely promoted racial harmony and took his responsibilities seriously.”
On September 4, 1957, a national furor erupted as the nine students attempted to enter Central High. Then-Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, in defiance of a federal court order desegregating schools, called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent them from entering.
“The nine students, chosen by Little Rock school system administrators for their excellent grades and records of good behavior, were stunned by the presence of hundreds of rioting segregationists and the Arkansas National Guard, the foundation said. The group was turned away.
One of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, said she was confronted by an angry mob of protesters, and directed back out to the street by the guardsmen when she tried to go in the school’s front door, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, maintained by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a department of the Central Arkansas Library System.
Eckford said she eventually reached a bench and sat down to wait for a bus to take her to her mother’s workplace.
“I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob — someone who maybe would help,” she recounted later. “I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”
For two weeks, the group remained at home, attempting to keep up with their schoolwork. Eventually, President Dwight D. Eisenhower mobilized the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort them into the school, and they entered on September 25. The military presence remained for the entire school year, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.