The daughter of two runaway slaves, Priscilla Jane Thompson wrote and self-published poetry to inspire the Harlem Renaissance all the way from Rossmoyne, a neighborhood in Cincinnati. Inspired by the stories of her parents and other black folks in the Cincinnati area, Priscilla wrote cutting verses on slavery and the injustices that survived with abolition. Her poetry as a whole would be considered an ode to the wisdom and beauty of the black woman.
John Henry (b 1822) and Clara Jane Thompson (b 1836) were born in Virginia as slaves. They were sold to a Kentucky owner in the 1850s. Around 1955, they began to have a family and had five children there: Charles, Samuel, Edward, Beverly, and Garland. Garland Yancey was the last born in Kentucky in 1863, and the family fled across the river to the relative safety of Cincinnati. Abolitionist John Schenck provided a job in his construction business and a home for the family at the end of his plot.
But the family was not yet out of danger. The south would come back and loom heavy over them. John Hunt Morgan’s troops had circled from Kelso, Indiana, to Harrison, Ohio, and up through Ross and over to Rossmoyne to fight the Union troops. Along the river, Cincinnati was too fortified. The Schencks received advanced warning and prepared, strategizing a plan and hiding the Thompson family in their parlor room with two of their valuable Spanish horses.
On Tuesday, 14 July 1863, at 5 a.m., Morgan and his men came knocking on the Schenck’s door demanding to be fed. One of the Schenck daughters, dressed as a servant, answered the door and directed the men to eat outside because one of the children had smallpox and was quarantined to the parlor. The closed off, quarantined parlor indicated that was true. Morgan had breakfast at the Schenck house while some of his soldiers fought in Silverton. Thirty minutes after the troops finished breakfast, their families were out of danger when Morgan’s troops cleared out. Cincinnati would prove to be impregnable for the South.
Here, John and Clara had Emma, then Clara Ann and soon Priscilla Jane in 1871.* Aaron came after Priscilla. John and Clara raised their children to be educated and immersed with the arts. By 1880, Clara Jane had died, and a woman named Mrs. Polly Dixon seems to have stepped in as a motherly figure for the children, as evidenced by one of Priscilla’s poems “To a Deceased Friend” written in her memory. As a child, Priscilla attended Amity school. She mourned its destruction and the memories associated with it in a poem called “Lines to an Old School-House” before the opening of the new Amity school.
After school, Priscilla trained to be a teacher but could never do so due to ongoing sufferings from heart disease. She did manage to teach in some manner with Sunday school at Zion Baptist Church. Instead of teaching full-time, Priscilla began writing and reading her work in the area. Garland built a house next door, and Clara, Priscilla, and Aaron all lived there with him, discussing and practicing art and literature. Providing a steady income, Garland continued to work with the Schenck family and learned the trade of concrete finishing and wood sculpting in doing so. He turned his work into an art, and his wood sculpting earned awards, even with having previously declined tutelage under the master wood designer Ben Pitman.
Using Aaron’s printer in that house, Priscilla self-published her first book Ethiope Lays in 1900 and dedicated it to her “best beloved” brother Garland, her “friend and warder.” Elizabeth Young talks a lot about contested black authorship in her book Disarming the Nation. In relation to her discussion on Elizabeth Keckley’s contested authorship, Young writes: “Like accusations of authenticity, the assertion of authorial collaboration and more specifically of dependence on white authors, was a frequent response to African-American writing.” Priscilla and her siblings avoid any contest of authenticity and sole authorship by self-publishing. They’d learned from the doubts of their predecessors.
Priscilla’s influence began spreading throughout the Midwest. Her brother Aaron, a popular poet in Indianapolis, asked her to perform their poetry and other popular poets’ poetry with him on Monday, 27 June 1904, at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Indianapolis. He regularly featured his sisters, including at Emancipation Day celebrations, a holiday to celebrate the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on 01 January 1865. Noted activist Booker T. Washington often was at these celebrations in Indianapolis as the featured guest–the Thompson family’s direct influence on Washington D.C. and the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1907, Priscilla released her second collection called Gleanings of the Quiet Hours. In her introductions, Priscilla makes her intent for writing known: to being true black characters to life with honesty and depth. She was responding to the stereotypes and racism embedded deep into American society. She writes in Gleanings: “If in any of these humble and simple rhymes, a passage or thought may chance prove a medium, through which the race may be elevated, or benefited, if only in the private mind of some reader, the writer feels, that her efforts is fully repaid.”
Priscilla Jane Thompson does just that. Her voice is assertive and rhythmic, adaptive and timeless, urgent and restless. She subverts white literary tradition in a variety of ways, using the love ballads of traditional Anglo folk tunes and legends and adapts them for the Civil War and black community. In doing so, she gives even more drama and danger, transcending racial barrier to show a common lineage while also invading the literary world to fight for the black woman’s place within it.
Listen to black women, she yells from her writing.
Her poetry often uplifts the black man as the forgiving hero and the white man as the villain, but the black man is too forgiving of white men while putting others of their race down for their success. She portrays the black man as the opposite of a savage rapist of white women. Even further, she presents black women as those of utmost importance in their words. Listen to black women, she yells from her writing. And so she pleads to the Muses to bring her the opportunities of less talented white men and equally talented white women. Priscilla consistently praises the black woman. Priscilla sings to the muse in “The Muse’s Favor”, taking the traditional Grecian ode and reclaiming it to the beauty of the black female body, countering the racist profiles of blacks, even with abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the poem, she begs the muses to give the black woman the equal opportunities afforded equally talented if not less talented white women, aka basic white bitches. “But of Caucasia’s daughters, so oft I’ve heard thy lay, That the music, too familiar, Falls in sheer monotony. And now, oh Muse exalted! Exchange this old staid, For an equally deserving:—The oft slighted, Afric maid.” In “Lines of Emma,” she even pokes fun at the tradition of white men writing poetry of wooing frail white women. Priscilla masters the art of mirroring and changing white male literature to make it her own.
Like most did to feminize men or rape the South as a geo-figurative woman, Priscilla genders the Civil War. In “Emancipation,” Priscilla visits Emancipation Day. There is no doubt she performed this at Emancipation Day here and in Indianapolis. She writes, “Day of victory, day of glory, / For thee, many a field was gory!” She establishes a dual meaning in the last line of the stanza, indicative of the actual Civil War battlefields and the fields in which slaves worked and shed blood. Interestingly, she refers to the parted Red Sea, the fissure, from South to North, as a “she,” a symbol of the women’s reproductive system. She very much focuses on the feminine as the leaders and saviors, and therefore feminizing Abe Lincoln. This was a tactic Southerners used often on Abe, especially in comparison with Harriet Beecher Stowe. But they did it negatively. Priscilla does so with love and knowing who should have the power for real change. This is an important and overlooked aspect of her work and of the narrative of race, division, and gender.
In her use of classic poetry diction, Priscilla either subverts white male literature or calls the black community to action. Using her own voice, she uses a lyrical imagery to a flowing diction. In telling of the everyday stories of blacks in her community, she uses an eye-dialect to represent their voices, as in “Uncle Jimmie’s Yarn”: “I wus wild an’ full uv mischief.” Rather than caricatures, Priscilla writes the voices as if you were listening to a real person.
In her use of classic poetry diction, Priscilla either subverts white male literature or calls the black community to action.
Though it may seem like a conversation in rhythmic rhyme, the notable “An Afternoon Gossip” is much more. It begins by setting the stage of the greedy white landlords being unforgiving of black tenants on late rent while forgiving of their white renters. Throughout the conversation, Mandy worries about the safety of her children walking home from school. Racism and anti-semitism were common in Cincinnati at the time, and both Jews and blacks were regularly beaten on the way home from school by white Christian school kids. Where Mandy was worried, her friend tries to assuage her and assure her that her children are fine and keeps her distracted with the latest gossip until the time that Mandy’s kids would be home. It reinforces the danger of black children simply existing. Her words still ring true and cut deep more than a hundred years later.
By 1910, Aaron married and moved out, but the three remaining siblings lived together until August of 1938 when Garland died. He left the house to Clara Ann, who inherited the family’s property there in Rossmoyne and bought some others’. Garland’s death left Clara to care for Priscilla herself, whose ailments were more frequent. She became less able to provide for the two, but Clara continued to support them.
On 04 May 1942, at 7:19 am, Priscilla died of a “cerebral hemorrhage” at the age of 71. Local black undertakers the Rankin Bros. prepared her for burial, and she was interned at the Colored American Cemetery, or what is now the United American Cemetery at the Union Baptist Church, in Columbia Township. As the last surviving sibling, Clara Ann bought one tombstone for her four single siblings buried at the Colored American Cemetery: Garland, Samuel, Aaron, and Priscilla. A year later, Clara Ann would still sorely grieve, buying an ad in the newspaper to dedicate her deep loss for her sister who died a year past. They had spent their entire lives living together, not just as sisters but best friends.
After her death, Priscilla’s work still never truly saw widespread admiration. She was published in a couple anthologies but didn’t get the recognition for her contribution to the literary field and a brave, bold new movement that swept the nation for civil rights. Priscilla’s work served as a bridge between the Civil War and civil rights, not living to see either but affected by the former and affecting the latter.
Want to take a Priscilla tour in Cincinnati?
Nothing of Priscilla’s known life stands anymore. But if you want to see where she would have written and read her poetry, while enjoying some local establishments, follow this path:
- The Schenck house: Though the Schenck house is private property now, you can still visit from the sidewalk at 4208 Schenck Ave.
- The Thompson property: Just down the road from the Schenck house is the 5-acre property John H. Thompson bought from the Schencks. There, John built a house and later Garland, where Priscilla would live and write.
- Get food in your belly!: Arrechissimo and Kinneret Cafe are both excellent local restaurants you’d salivate over just reading the menu.
- Take me to church: Originally located at 35 Coral Avenue in Glendale, the Zion Baptist Church is now located across the street at 40 Coral Avenue and known as the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
- A bit morbid but why not: The Rankin Bros funeral services were located at 1224 Chapel (Walnut Hills), which doesn’t exist anymore. You can only see a set of stairs from the road.
- Honor the dead: United American Cemetery is located at 4732 Duck Creek Rd. There you can find Priscilla’s grave.
- Toast to Priscilla: Enjoy a beer at Woodburn Brewery and toast to our good gal Priscilla. When Esoteric Brewing Co. opens in the iconic Paramount building, that will be your go-to destination to honor Priscilla, as it’s the first minority-owned brewery in Cincinnati!
Click on the images to enlarge.
- Name: Priscilla Jane Thompson
- Birth: 1871*
- Death: 04 May 1942
- Parents: John Henry and Clara Jane Thompson
- Known for: Pre-Harlem-Renaissance poetry in Ethiope Lays and Gleaning of Quiet Hours
- Husband: She didn’t need a man.
- Connections: Clara Ann Thompson, possibly the Piatt and Pittman families (working on that)
- Time in Cincinnati: 1871 – 1942
- Placed Lived: Rossmoyne, Cincinnati, OH
- Death: 04 May 1942
- Burial: United American Cemetery, East Madisonville
When sources say “Retrieved from…” those are clickable! Go read Priscilla’s stunning poetry!
- Aberjhani and Sandra L. West. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Facts on File, 2003, pg 327.
- Bolden, Tonya. “Biographies: Priscilla Jane Thompson.” Digital Schomburg African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, New York Public Library. Retrieved from New York Public Library.
- Cahill, Lora Schmidt and David L. Mowery. Morgan’s Raid Across Ohio: The Civil War Guidebook of the John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail, pp 68-69.
- Horitz, Lester V. The Longest Raid of the Civil War. Farmcourt Publishing, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio, 2001, pp 124-125.
- Library of Congress
- U.S. Census Records (FamilySearch)
- Ohio History Connection
- Thompson, Priscilla. Ethiope Lays. Priscilla Jane Thompson, Rossmoyne, Ohio, 1900. Retrieved from Google Books.
- Thompson, Priscilla. Gleanings of Quiet Hours. Priscilla Jane Thompson, Rossmoyne, Ohio, 1907. Retrieved from Google Books.
- Young, Elizabeth. Disarming the Nation: Women’s Writing and the American Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp 125-126.
S.E.’s Notes: *Most sources claim Priscilla’s birth as 1871. However, her death record says she was 64 at the time of her death, which puts her birth at 1878. The information relayed to them was apparently from Clara Ann, who also said their father’s name was Garland. This contradicts all the census records tracking her age but puts forth a notion that Clara Ann was also suffering from memory loss in her advanced age.
Concerning photos: All photos are taken/owned by Queens of Queen City or given permission for use here only and are indicated when originating elsewhere. Please do not reproduce without our consent or the originators’ consent, respectively.
This page is composed by S.E. Andres.