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Priscilla Jane Thompson, the daughter of courageous abolitionists, rose to become a prominent poet and self-publisher during the Harlem Renaissance. Her moving verses addressed the enduring injustices of slavery while also celebrating Black women’s resilience and wisdom.

Priscilla’s work bridged the gap for Black Americans by advocating for empowerment and challenging societal norms. Even though she received little recognition during her lifetime, her legacy inspires future generations.

 

Courageous Beginnings and Artistic Pursuits

Priscilla Jane Thompson was born in 1871 as the proud daughter of two courageous individuals, John Henry and Clara Jane Thompson, who had escaped the bonds of slavery. Hailing from Rossmoyne, a small neighborhood outside Cincinnati, she embarked on a journey as a poet and self-publisher, leaving an indelible mark on the Harlem Renaissance and the Black community.

Priscilla drew inspiration from the stories shared by her parents and other Black residents of Cincinnati about Black history. Through her poetry, she eloquently addressed the lingering effects of slavery and the enduring injustices that persisted even after its abolition. Her poetry served as a tribute, celebrating Black women’s resilience, wisdom, and beauty.

 

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Family Bonds

Despite their challenges, Priscilla grew up in a loving household alongside her three siblings. Their upbringing fostered a deep appreciation for knowledge and creativity. Her mother died in 1880, leaving Priscilla’s young life void. However, Mrs. Polly Dixon stepped in as a motherly figure, providing comfort and guidance during this challenging time—a bond that Priscilla beautifully expressed in her poem “To A Deceased Friend.”

As was customary in Victorian society, Priscilla’s older brother, Garland, assumed the household head role in their father’s absence. He continued working with the Schenck family as a concrete finisher and wood sculptor, ensuring a steady income for their family.

Priscilla pursued her education and became a teacher, sharing her knowledge through Sunday school classes at Zion Baptist Church. Unfortunately, her ongoing battle with heart disease prevented her from teaching full-time, prompting her to explore another passion—writing.

Clara Ann Thompson
Clara Ann’s portrait. Source: Songs by the Wayside, 1908

Inspired by her poet siblings, Aaron and Clara, Priscilla and her family decided to publish their works to maintain authenticity and avoid authorship disputes. Utilizing Aaron’s printer, she self-published her debut book, “Ethiope Lays,” dedicating it to her beloved brother, Garland. The collection garnered attention and was showcased at the Paris Exposition of 1900 as part of the Collection of Colored Literature, earning significant acclaim. Her work foreshadowed the sense of racial pride and dignity that would also characterize the New Negro movement, and her work was firm in its evocation of political awareness.

 

 

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Literary Recognition

Priscilla Jane Thompson gained popularity as she showcased her talent at various expositions. She became known as an elocutionist through her public readings. In 1904, she received an invitation from Aaron to perform together in Indianapolis, marking their first joint performance.

Over the years, Priscilla and her sisters would join Aaron in captivating audiences during Emancipation Day celebrations, now recognized as Juneteenth. These events caught the attention of notable figures such as Booker T. Washington, who introduced Priscilla’s family to influential circles in Washington, DC, and the emerging Harlem Renaissance movement. As a poet, Priscilla was overshadowed by Clara and Aaron, but she was outstanding as a proponent of the strength and beauty of blackness.

 

 

Related Article: Nikki Giovanni, an internationally acclaimed poet who organized the first African American arts festival in Cincinnati

 

 

Empowering Black Women

Priscilla Jane Thompson - Gleanings of Quiet Hours
Priscilla Jane Thompson – Gleanings of Quiet Hours from archive.org

In 1907, Priscilla released her second collection, “Gleanings of the Quiet Hours.” In her introduction, she expressed her purpose for writing—to breathe life into authentic Black characters with honesty and depth. This countered the prevailing stereotypes and deep-seated racism embedded in American society. Thompson wrote her poetry intended to inspire and benefit African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois would encourage Black poets of the 1920s and 1930s to write. Her poetic voice was bold, rhythmic, timeless, urgent, and restless. Priscilla transcended racial barriers by subverting white literary traditions and adapting love ballads from traditional Anglo folk tunes. She showcased a common lineage while challenging the literary world, fighting for the rightful place of Black women at the table of recognition and respect.

 

Enduring Legacy

After the passing of her beloved brother, Garland, Priscilla’s sister, Clara Ann, inherited the family home. She took on the role of caretaker as Priscilla’s health declined. On May 4, 1942, at 71, Priscilla succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. In a testament to their bond, Clara Ann purchased a single tombstone for their father, Samuel, and her siblings. Tragically, Clara Ann, Priscilla’s devoted sister, caretaker, and closest friend, passed away just one year later, in 1943.

Thompson Family Tombstone
Thompson Family Tombstone from Findagrave.com

Priscilla Jane Thompson published numerous poems, books, and anthologies throughout her life. Though recognition for her poetry eluded her during her lifetime, her work was vital for the Civil Rights movement. Priscilla’s words echoed with truth and resilience, leaving a legacy that continues to inspire, challenge norms, and advocate for equality.

 

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