With Freedom’s Fire: Clara Ann Thompson

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.

Clara Ann Thompson, circa 1926John 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. Slavery was ever at their door. The border town of Cincinnati was rife with racial and political tension with Northern and Southern geopolitics. John Hunt Morgan’s troops had come to Rossmoyne, using the Schenck property to squat on for a morning meeting. The Schencks received advanced warning of their arrival and prepared, strategizing a plan. In the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday, 14 July 1863, they quickly hid the Thompson family in their parlor room with two of their valuable Andalusian horses. Morgan would have broke fast in the parlor, but the family warned him that sick family members were quarantined there. In the time of cholera, he would have avoided it, quite like the plague.

Here in Rossmoyne, John and Clara had Emma, then Clara Ann on 22 Jan 1869, soon Priscilla Jane in 1871, and lastly Aaron Bedford. 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. The children attended Amity school, where a new bell hung in the belfry. 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. As she taught, there was something always tugging at Clara’s mind. She needed to write. Though she wanted to write novels, writing poetry was what she could fit in with her busy schedule. Priscilla was already writing and performing her poetry, unable to teach due to her heart disease. Soon Clara Ann joined her, reading her poetry at churches, known for her elocution talents. The churches were safe public places for Cincinnati’s black population to have a freedom of speech and allowed black voices to be influential. She and Priscilla became actively involved with the YWCA.

Garland, Clara, 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. In 1902, Aaron and his new bride moved to Indianapolis, leaving behind his printing press and the three other siblings to live together, the only siblings to never marry.

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. It fronts the book with a deeply personal touch before heading right into “Uncle Rube’s Defense,” which is the beginning of her Uncle Rube series, some of her most critical poems of race relations, the definitive link between slavery and Reconstruction. They were also her most critically acclaimed, really her only liked poems. In “Defense,” she examines how the criminal actions of one black man will reflect on the entire race, while the criminal actions of one white man will not reflect on their race.

It’s no accident that “Memorial Day” follows “Defense,” given that Memorial Day’s origins are a large part of black history. While she honors the dead who fought for freedom, she turns the poem into a push for peace. “Must we sin, that sin may die?” Clara cries.

“Johnny’s Pet Superstition” seems innocuous, but the layers of social contexts run deep, revealing a division between Northern and Southern black communities and the role of education in them, even up to the turn of the century. It reveals the colonial aspect of the Northern education and the value of family lore and teachings, something students in Cincinnati would have been well exposed to.

In “Mrs. Johnson Objects,” Clara examines class and race in the same poem, writing about a black mother who wants her child to stop playing with the white trash kids. It’s a precursor to the writings of bell hooks. She similarly examines class and race in “The Easter Bonnet.”

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 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. In it, she holds nothing back. Nothing.

Your brother’s blood, though dark his face,
Shed by the fiendish mob’s decree;
His crime? A member of that race
You’ve held long years in slavery.

You dragged him, bleeding, through the streets,
To where you’d built a ghastly pyre;
You tortured him like savage beasts,
Then cast him, living, in the fire.

Your mothers with their babes were there,
To view that feast of fire and blood;
Your sisters, wives and sweethearts fair,
God pity such base womanhood!

Clara writes of race from many perspectives, as in “The Bleating of the Sheep.” The poem is a complete destruction of race and gender relations, and you’d think that Priscilla wrote it. Clara warns that if the U.S. doesn’t get rid of the KKK and the mob, it shall suffer God’s wrath. The U.S. “would do better to help the loyal African; than to court anarchy arriving from foreign shores,” as anthologist Boelcskevy writes of the poem. Clara provides graphic imagery of white mobs hanging black men for false accusations of rape, while white women fetishize them. Clara speaks to black men of race disloyalty. This is a testament to the leaving behind of black women, while black men adopt and infiltrate white culture as participants in wars and voting. Black women, Clara Ann shouts, are the true dissenters and political voices of change and truth.

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 form 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.” Her Uncle Rube poems soared nationally, but it was locally—in the churches and the black celebrations—that saw the rise of her other poems. Aside from “Defense,” another major one of the set “Uncle Rube on the Race Problem” acutely hits major points of racial tension in America. One of them is white immigrants being acceptable, but non-whites being unacceptable and even reviled and attacked. These are a series of poems still deeply relevant today.

Clara’s desire to be a novelist explains her strength in creating character and unique dialogue to display generational differences, rather than form and precision. It also explains her wordy poems. In her work, Clara criticizes the Christian religions for infighting rather than working together to save souls.

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.

Clara, Priscilla, and Garland lived together until August of 1938 when Garland died. Garland 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. She sold and bought lots when the going got tough or when she felt she could make money off it.

As Priscilla’s health worsened and the popularity of poetry waned, Clara Ann sought work as a live-in maid. She no longer lived at the family homestead, which she and Garland so lovingly kept up. 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.

In her final days, Clara was cared for by her niece Mrs. Emma Smith. She was the last of her siblings living. Clara died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 80 on Friday, 18 March 1949 at her final residence in Rossmoyne. Her body was prepped by Cora Jamison, located at 702 W 9th St. Services were held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at the corner of 8th and Mound. Unfortunately, both the funeral home and the church have been razed for the construction of I-75. Clara, too, was buried with the rest of her family, though she has no known gravestone. Whether that’s due to weathered destruction or if she could not afford it in her final days is unknown.*

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. Clara Ann was more widely published and recognized but less respected than Priscilla, save for her Uncle Rube poems. Indeed her Uncle Rube poems are her best work, and “Bleating” perhaps her most ambitious and effective, though more speech-like than poetic. 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.

Photo Gallery

Click photos to enlarge.

 

Quick Facts

  • Name: Clara Ann Thompson
  • Birth: 22 January 1869
  • Death: 18 March 1949
  • Parents: John Henry and Clara Jane Thompson
  • Known for: elocution, books Songs from the Wayside and A Garland of Poems
  • Connections: Priscilla Jane Thompson, possibly the Piatt, Pittman, Nourse, and Fossett families (working on that)
  • Time in Cincinnati: 1869 – 1949
  • Placed Lived: Rossmoyne, Cincinnati, OH (one year downtown)
  • Burial: United American Cemetery, East Madisonville (supposed)

Bibliography

When sources say “Retrieved from…” those are clickable! Go read Clara’s poetry!

  • Aberjhani and Sandra L. West. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Facts on File, 2003. Pg 327.
  • Boelcskevy, Mary Anne Stewart, Clara Ann Thompson, J. Pauline Smith, Mazie Earhart Clark. Voices in the Poetic Tradition. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Jennifer Burton. G. K. Hall & Co. New York, NY, 1996, pp xviii-xxii.
  • Bolden, Tonya. “Biographies: Clara Ann Thompson.” Digital Schomburg African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, New York Public Library. Retrieved from NYPL.
  • Catalogue of Copyright Entries: Pamphlets, leaflets, contributions to newspapers or periodicals, etc.; lectures, sermons, addresses for oral delivery; dramatic compositions; maps; motion pictures, Volume 18, Issue 1, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1921, pg 726. Retrieved from Google Books.
  • Dabney, Wendell P. Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens, Cincinnati, Ohio: The Dabney Publishing Company, 1988. Pg 320.
  • “Deaths and Funerals: Book Of Life Is Concluded For Clara Thompson, Poet.” The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 20 Mar 1949, Sun, Page 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.
  • “Journey’s End.” The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 20 Mar 1949, Sun, Page 30. Retrieved from Newspapers.
  • “News of Colored Folk.” The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana), 11 Jul 1909, Sun, Page 25. Retrieved from Newspapers.
  • “Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953,” database with images, FamilySearch, Clara Ann Thompson, 18 Mar 1949; citing , reference certificate; FHL microfilm 2,246,587. Retrieved from FamilySearch.
  • “Real Estate Transfers.” The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 27 Sep 1946, Fri, Page 20. Retrieved from Newspapers.
  • Thompson, Clara Ann. Songs by the Wayside. Thompson, Rossmoyne, Ohio. 1908. Retrieved from Internet Archive.
  • Thompson, Clara Ann. A Garland of Poems. Thompson, Rossmoyne, Ohio. 1926.

Notes

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.

*I haven’t given up looking for where Clara’s buried, and my goal once we go non-profit is to raise funds for her headstone.

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