Friends Mourn Passing of Loudoun Historian, Activist

All this week, the tributes have been pouring in for Elaine E. Thompson, a woman widely lauded as one of the most influential voices on black history in Loudoun.

Thompson, who turned 84 last month, died on Sunday, Oct. 9, from paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, or PNH, a rare blood disorder in which red blood cells break apart prematurely.

Friends, colleagues and admirers will gather at 1 p.m. Saturday at Mr. Zion United Methodist Church, 250 West Virginia Ave., in Hamilton to mourn her passing as well as to extol her virtues and many contributions.

She was born in Purcellville, but retired in the 1980s to live in the small community of Hamilton, which she loved, to live in her parents’ house. Thompson received a bachelor’s degree in 1955 from Hampton Institute (University) in education, specializing in English. She received her master’s degree in education from the same institution in 1960.

Thompson taught English in Talbot County Public Schools in Easton, MD.

In one of her favorite photographs, Elaine E. Thompson salutes the statue of one of her heroes, social reformer Frederick Douglass, at the courthouse in Easton, MD. [Deborah Lee]
In one of her favorite photographs, Elaine E. Thompson salutes the statue of one of her heroes, social reformer Frederick Douglass, at the courthouse in Easton, MD. [Deborah Lee]
The list of her awards and contributions to Loudoun history is lengthy, as are her numerous publications and public lectures.

She was the chair of the Emancipation Day celebration in Purcellville in 2008, having previously authored “In the Watchfires: The Loudoun County Emancipation Association, 1890-1971.” She successfully obtained a Virginia Department of Historic Resources highway marker at the Emancipation Grounds in Purcellville, dedicated in 2000.

She was a guest speaker at the 250th anniversary of Loudoun County in 2007 and wrote many publications on black history, including her contributions to the two-volume book “The Essence of a People,” written after helping found the Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee in 2000.

Thompson was a recipient of the Thomas Balch Library Advisory Commission’s History Award in 1998, a member of the Loudoun Museum Board of Directors from 1997 to 2000 and also received the Loudoun County Chapter’s Jack and Jill of America, Inc. Legacy Award in 2008.

At the national level, Thompson was a Gold Life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization she treasured.

The word “trenchant” could be used to describe her character. She was direct and incisive: her vision cut to the heart of things—but she was never unkind.

Phillip Thompson, president of the NAACP Chapter in Loudoun, called her “a giant” in Loudoun County’s black history annals. He praised the quality of her research and books that laid the foundation for others seeking to ensure that the county’s black history and sites are protected and made public.

Her longtime friend and fellow historian Deborah Lee remembered her this week as a “fabulous aunt” to the many members of the younger generation of her family, and to young people in general. Lee called Thompson’s relationships with individuals and community organizations as “very, very special.”

She was kind and compassionate, but also “exacting,” Lee noted, adding “she seemed quiet but she could point out or say things that you would really take to heart.”

What most set Thompson apart, Lee said, was her intelligence and curious mind. “She had such a big heart.”

County Chairman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) called Thompson “one of my mentors,” along with Mattie Lassiter and Mary Randolph. In 2008, Randall asked the county supervisors why did they not celebrate a Black History Month? Challenged to write it up herself, she did—first calling Thompson for advice, who invited her to come to her house and talk about it.

From then on Randall said, “I’d send her (Thompson) the program every year, and she’d send it back, sometimes with the characteristic comment: ‘There’s just this little detail you’ve got wrong.’”

Black History Committee Chair Donna Bohanon also called Thompson her mentor and friend.

In remarks Bohanon sent to the Black History Committee, she urged her colleagues to “honor her memory by living as she did—asserting excellence in all that we do, speaking out when we see social injustice and by being positive role models within our own sphere of influence and, most importantly, by committing to telling and sharing our stories.”

One of Thompson’s most valued roles was that of a founding member of the Black History Committee of the Balch Library, which she helped bring into existence with Susan Webber, Lee and Waterford historian Bronwen Souders.

Souders, who had known Thompson for 25 years, working with her on black history projects, called her a superb and dedicated researcher. “For a very quiet person, she did a huge amount.”

Thompson had suffered from PNH for years, and had managed to keep going with it, but it was this summer that her doctors told her it was worsening. Even then, she retained her sense of humor.

“She was cracking jokes at our last meeting three weeks ago,” Souders recalled. Her roots in western Loudoun were deep—reaching far back to an ancestor, Joseph Trammell, a former slave, who was ultimately freed and is buried at Goose Creek Meeting in Lincoln.

And that was what made her gift to the new Museum of African American History and Culture that opened last month in Washington, DC, so poignant and memorable, Souders said.

Thompson gifted to the museum Trammell’s freedom certificate, which was contained in a tin case he had manufactured specially to hold the papers.

“She wondered what to do, knowing her end was not far off—and realized [the museum] would be the perfect place to save that family history,” Souders said.

She knew she was dying, according to Souders, and hoped she would make it to the opening of the museum on Sept. 24, since her gift had been accepted. Thanks to friends and family members, Thompson was able to attend the donors’ reception and the opening ceremonies.

Souders had hoped to visit her over the weekend. When she called on Sunday to see how she felt and asked about the museum events, Thompson said, “I would not have missed them for the world.”

She died later that night.

mmorton@loudounnow

 

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