Clara Ann Thompson was a poet and daughter of runaway slaves. Along with her sister Priscilla Jane, she rose to significance but fell into obscurity as life happened to her. Her voice reached beyond the Ohio River Valley to influence national movements. She stood strong in the face of oppression, fighting from the churches of Cincinnati.
John Henry (b 1822) and Clara Jane Thompson (b 1836) were born in Virginia as slaves. In the 1850s, they were sold to a Kentucky plantation owner. Around 1955, the couple began to have a family and had five children there. Soon after their son Garland Yancey Thompson was born in Kentucky in 1863, the family fled across the river, assisted by Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad. They found a home at the north end of John Schenck’s property and began working for him. It seemed that the Thompson family was finally safe and free. But the family was not yet out of danger. Morgan’s raiders came to the farm, and the Schenck’s hid them in the parlor with their prize horses.
Here in Rossmoyne, John and Clara had Clara Ann on 22 Jan 1869. John and Clara raised their children to be educated and immersed with the arts and surrounded by a community that was haunted by their pasts in slavery and the struggles for freedom. By 1880, Clara Jane had died, and Polly Dixon stepped in as a motherly figure for the children, and their slightly older brother Garland stepped in as a fatherly figure for their father, which was typical at the time for widowed men.
After school, Clara Ann trained to be a teacher. But she needed to write. With her sister, she began writing and performing her poetry in churches. Clara and her siblings Garland, Priscilla, and Aaron all lived together, discussing and practicing art and literature. Imagine the three younger siblings bouncing lines off each other in their own salons.
Using their printing press, Clara Ann self-published her first book Songs from the Wayside in 1908, a book collecting her “meditations on spirituality, black folk wisdom, and nature.” Clara dedicated the book to Garland and Priscilla. By this time, Priscilla was a star in black literature, having released two books already. Clara’s work forms a bridge between the Civil War and that of the black empowerment of the Harlem Renaissance, as also seen in Priscilla’s poetry, juxtaposing women’s domesticity and man’s freedom of activity. Though Songs from the Wayside isn’t dedicated to her dead brother, the first poem is.
The Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP was created in 1915, 5 years after the national organization was formed. The sisters joined it to support civil rights, and there’s no doubt that this organized activism inspired Clara to compose and perform “What Mean This Bleating of the Sheep?” It grew in popularity as she performed it both in Cincinnati and Indianapolis at churches and events, along with her brother Aaron Bedford, a rising poet in Indianapolis. In Indianapolis, she’d be introduced to noted poet James Whitcomb Riley and Booker T. Washington, the Thompson family’s direct influence on Washington D.C. and the Harlem Renaissance. Clara Ann’s “Bleating” poem would end up a national talking point for several years, and its popularity demanded it to be printed. So in 1921, Clara Ann copyrighted an 8-page pamphlet of the increasingly popular poem. (Download the full poem here.) This allowed her to self-publish it on demand.
Clara Ann had been garnering regional and national attention. In 1926, the Christopher Publishing House had no choice but to publish the increasingly renowned Clara Ann Thompson. This departure from self-publishing meant that her name was established enough for people to believe that she, a black woman, could write. The second collection, entitled A Garland of Poems was dedicated to Garland “in recognition of his unfailing Kindness and Affection.”
As proven by her second book, Clara’s race-related poetry seemed to fall by the wayside as she suffered more loss and found more comfort in her spirituality. With religious poetry, Clara sought to comfort in dire times of World Wars, domestic terrorism of white supremacy and nationalism, and worldwide flu outbreak. The church served as a place for spiritual guidance, education, and social work within the black community, as many places would not be welcoming to them. The church would later be credited with birthing the civil rights movement.
After Garland died, he left the house to Clara Ann, who inherited the family 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 through real estate dealings and maid services. Poetry was no longer a profession; it was becoming a hobby and even a past. Priscilla died in 1942 at 71. As the last surviving sibling, Clara Ann bought one tombstone for four of her siblings buried at the Colored American Cemetery: Garland, Samuel, Aaron, and Priscilla. Clara Ann would still sorely grieve the seven remaining years of her life. They had spent their entire lives living together, not just as sisters but best friends.
Clara died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 80 on Friday, 18 March 1949 at her final residence in Rossmoyne. Clara, too, was buried with the rest of her family, though she has no known gravestone.
Clara Ann’s poetry 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. Her editors and critics are harsh. In Newman Ivey White’s An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes (1924), the editor considers Clara more artistically polished and restrained in comparison to her brother and sister. However, he criticizes that she “has no breadth of view, or intensity or much imagination, and not much culture.” I should note that culture here is being measured and defined by a white man in the U.S., so let’s not take that one very seriously.
Clara Ann Thompson is a remarkable writer, and there is absolutely no reason why “Bleating” and the Uncle Rube poems shouldn’t be in more anthologies.
Take the Clara Ann Thompson Tour
Very few physical structures of Clara’s known life stand 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. There is a sign outside that talks about the Thompsons and Morgan’s raiders.
- 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.
- Honor the dead: United American Cemetery is located at 4732 Duck Creek Rd. There you can find her sibling’s gravestone. Her plot is somewhere nearby.
- Celebrate Clara Ann: There’s a lot to do in Oakley and Madisonville, so you can spend the rest of the day there! But wherever you choose to celebrate, try to support establishments owned and operated by black women. Supporting black women was important to Clara and Priscilla.
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*I haven’t given up looking for where Clara’s buried, and a future goal is to raise funds for her headstone.