By Sean E. Andres
The daughter of two people who escaped slavery, Priscilla Jane Thompson wrote and self-published poetry to help 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 enslaved people. Sold to a Kentucky plantation owner, they started a family and eventually escaped slavery to Cincinnati’s Rossmoyne. The Schencks, who helped them escape on the Underground Railroad, gave them a parcel of land and work. The danger presented to them by the South was not over. The Schencks received advanced warning and prepared for the coming of Morgan’s raid to their doorstep on 14 July 1863. They hid the Thompson family in their parlor room with two of their valuable Spanish horses.
Here, John and Clara had Priscilla Jane in 1871.* 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. Their older brother Garland took the place of their father, though their father was living, as was customary in Victorian society.
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. Priscilla lived with her siblings Garland, Clara, and Aaron. 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.
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.” Priscilla and her siblings avoid any contest of authenticity and sole authorship by self-publishing. They’d learned from the doubts of their predecessors. The book was featured at the Paris Exposition of 1900 in the “Collection of Colored Literature” and won significant praise.
Educators can download a unit plan that includes Priscilla and Clara.
Priscilla’s influence began spreading throughout the Midwest, showcasing at expositions. 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 Emancipation, or what we now know as Juneteenth. 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. 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.
After Garland died, he left the house to Clara Ann, who now had to care for Priscilla herself, whose ailments were more frequent. On 04 May 1942, at 7:19 am, Priscilla died of a “cerebral hemorrhage” at the age of 71. She was interred at the Colored American Cemetery, or what is now the United American Cemetery. 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. If there is a Black-owned restaurant in the area, please support them by eating there!
- 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. in Columbia Township. 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! Afterward, you can eat at Burnett’s Soul Food or Just Q’in.
Click on the images to enlarge.
*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 from Clara Ann, who also said their father’s name was Garland. This contradicts all the census records tracking her age and confirms that the girls considered their brother her father figure.
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.
- Ethiope Lays by Priscilla Jane Thompson
- Gleanings of Quiet Hours by Priscilla Jane Thompson
- Biographies by Tonya Bolden
- Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens by Wendell P. Dabney
- Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance by Aberjhani and Sandra L. West
- U.S. Catalogue of Copyright Entries
- U.S. Census Records
- Voices in the Poetic Tradition by Mary Anne Stewart Boelcskevy, Clara Ann Thompson, J. Pauline Smith, Mazie Earhart Clark