The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 156,657 black Americans with Thompson as their last name. That represented 24% of the total of 664,644 entries.
This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Thompson in the last three centuries.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
Thompson Before The Civil War
The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.
In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. There were three categories: white, black, and mulatto. The third term is the language of the time, and I will use mixed in this article.
If you are researching your black Thompson ancestors in census archives, be sure to check the two non-white categories. Do not assume that the people recording the information were always correct.
1850 Federal Census
There were 2,583 people named Thompson who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 758 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.
There was a total of 71,416 free citizens named Thompson that year. There would be one more census in 1860 before the Civil War.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first survey after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. All African Americans were included.
Those who were omitted in 1850 and 1860 because they were enslaved were now recorded.
21,814 people named Thompson were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 3,318 as mixed.
There was a total of 129,981 people with the name.
Thompson In The 1900 And 1940 Census
The mixed category was dropped in 1900, so we just need to look at the black numbers this time.
The 1900 census recorded 40,283 people with the last name Thompson as black within a total of 221,768 that year.
By the way, the mixed category returned in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. It was dropped again in 1930, but replaced with extra categories for colored and non-white in a way that seems confusing now.
This changed again in 1940 and we can simply focus on one black category.
The 1940 census recorded 55,759 people named Thompson as black within a total of 359,173.
Historic Black Figures
Here are some notable African American people in history with Thompson as their last name.
Noah Davis Thompson and Eloise Bibb Thompson
Noah Davis Thompson and Eloise Bibb married in 1911 and settled in Los Angeles. Both were journalists and activists. Noah was from Baltimore and Eloise was from New Orleans.
Noah worked for many years with the Los Angeles Examiner, a leading daily newspaper. Eloise wrote features for the Los Angeles Tribune.
Eloise was a poet and playwright who published her first book of poems in 1895 when she was seventeen.
Eloise’s play, “A Reply To The Clansman”, was a response to the highly prejudiced “Birth of a Nation” film.
“Africannus” from 1922 was based on Marcus Garvey’s life.
Other Early Black Poets
Here are some other notable African American poets who were born in the 19th century:
Era Bell Thompson
- Born: 1905
- From: Des Moines, Iowa
- Died: 1986
Era Bell Thompson couldn’t find work as a journalist after she gained a postgraduate degree in journalism. She worked as a secretary while writing an autobiography called American Daughter, which was published in 1946.
Ebony (magazine) recruited her the following year as an assistant editor. As she gained seniority, she also traveled through eighteen African countries as a foreign reporter.
She became co-managing editor in 1951, a position she held for thirteen years. After that, she was the international editor until she retired.
Thompson shaped the magazine’s focus on issues of race and gender for decades.
Thompson In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Thompson surname from three different military services:
- Black civil war sailors
- Buffalo soldiers
- Tuskegee airmen
Black Civil War Sailors
The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.
The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.
You can search the database on the National Parks website.
One of the earliest entries for Thompson was for Daniel Thompson from New York City, New York. He enlisted in October 1861 at New York when he was aged 28.
The record shows that Daniel was assigned on September 1863 to the ship Samuel Rotan.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Cook/Laborer/Steward. His naval rank was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at Cairo in February 1865. John was aged 20 and was from Lexington, Tennessee.
He was assigned to the ship Collier on April 1865.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Cook. His naval rank was Ordinary Seaman.
An ordinary seaman in the Navy is an apprentice who serves on the deck.
Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.
One of the earliest military entries for Thompson was in December 1867. Jar Thompson was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in December 1867 at Fort Arbuckle, Indian Territory.
One of the later entries was in February 1914. George A Thompson was a Corporal in the Tenth Cavalry.
If you are researching military ancestors, there is a free index of these records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. You have to create an account on either website, but you do not need to pay for the Buffalo Soldiers archive.
The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.
Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. The photograph above (from the Library of Congress) shows a class in session.
They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
Floyd Thompson graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in August 1943. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Floyd was from London, West Virginia.
Francis Thompson came from Brooklyn, New York. He graduated in March 1945 as a bomber pilot.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.