The newly opened Museum of African-American of History and Culture in Washington has many, many precious things within its walls – tens of thousands of artifacts, mementos, and symbols of dreams-come-true that tell the African-American journey from slave ship to President of the United States.
The items range from the profoundly sad to the impossibly proud. A shard of glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama where four little girls lost their lives in a Sunday morning bombing in 1963. A Gold Medal won by Carl Lewis at the 1984 Olympics.
There among them is a gift to America from a remarkable woman named Elaine Thompson, a long-time resident of Hamilton who passed from this life to the next on Sunday, October 9.
The gift is a small tin box that belonged to Elaine’s great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Trammel. Inside the box are Joseph’s 1852 freedom papers. “Certification” that the then-21-year-old was a freeman. Not bound to any man except himself.
Elaine Thompson dedicated her life to telling the African-American story through family members like Trammell – and everyone she met along the way. That was her life. That was her job. Whether teaching high school English, or volunteering at a bake sale to benefit black history, or working on her many, many history and research projects, that was her mission.
Elaine never stopped. She chaired the Emancipation Day in Purcellville. She secured a highway marker for the Emancipation grounds. She accepted speaking engagements every chance she got, and said something really worth thinking about each time she did. She helped found the Balch Library’s Black History Committee. And, she was a mentor that the young and old went to, to learn how to excel at celebrating and living your best values.
I knew Elaine only briefly in this life. But, every time she shared an article with me, worked with me to plan an event, waved at me from across the room and gave me a warm smile, or simply poured me a glass of iced tea at her kitchen table, she made an impression on me. Upbeat … then quiet … but always with her eye on the cause. Always looking for an opportunity to share a story or listen to one of mine. Always wanting to know if I’d seen any of our mutual friends recently … and how they were. She always made an impression on me.
Jason Nichols, Elaine’s nephew, posted the picture you see here on her Facebook page on October 10, the day after she had moved on to her next life. Next to the picture he wrote six simple words, “My beautiful, brilliant aunt, Elaine Thompson.” Beautiful. Brilliant. Yes, I agree.
In my favorite of Elaine’s books, “In The Watchfires: The Loudoun County Emancipation Association 1890-1971,” she tells the story of how local African-Americans stuck by each other, protected each other, and all arrived at a better place, the safety of the watchfires, together.
I don’t want to say goodbye to Elaine. I’ll simply say, “Goodbye, for now. I’ll see you in the watchfires.”