COLUMBIA — The Tenth Class of the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent was honored at a special ceremony during a writer’s conference two weeks ago in Chicago. The keynote speaker, who was also to be inducted that evening, could not be there.
Dr. Julius Thompson, poet, scholar, mentor, brother, friend, professor and director of the Black Studies Department at MU, was hospitalized earlier that week.
Dr. Thompson died Friday, Oct. 26, 2007, at University Hospital. He was 61.
In addition to his three sisters, Willie Mae Hibler of St. Louis, Mary Joann Thompson of Laurel, Miss., and Lee Ethel Thompson of Southfield, Mich., Dr. Thompson left behind many mourners in Columbia and across the country.
A memorial service for Dr. Thompson will be held on Nov. 9 at MU. A location has not yet been found.
Julius Eric Thompson was born to Josie and Pendleton Thompson in Vicksburg, Miss., on July 15, 1946.
Lee Ethel Thompson said her brother’s goal was to help young people achieve greatness in life. She also said, “He loved his family, he loved writing, he loved books, he loved movies. He went to the movies every Saturday.”
Not much of a cook, Thompson loved Thai food.
Janet Howard, administrative assistant for the Black Studies Department and a colleague of Dr. Thompson, delivered the news to his class Tuesday morning. Streaming out of the classroom, many students paused to speak about their professor.
“I realized his deep appreciation for what he was teaching. It was important to him,” said Sarah Mitchell, a senior majoring in psychology from Poplar Bluff. “He really stressed that when Africans were brought over here, they weren’t a savage people who didn’t have their own culture. It was that rich cultural background that enabled us to persevere — not just survive — but educate ourselves, participate in the arts.”
In his 11 years at MU, Thompson taught hundreds of students in courses such as Black Religion and Black Biography, which examines major figures in African-American religious history. In his courses, Thompson always emphasized the interconnection of politics, economics and social life.
Phyllis Williams, a junior majoring in history and sociology, expressed her sense of loss this way: “As the Black Studies chairman, Professor Thompson was the shouter on the mountaintop. Hopefully, others will pick up where he left off.”
Williams described Thompson as extremely intelligent and charismatic yet tangible. “He knew the material. But his goal wasn’t to get us to learn the material; he wanted to be sure we understood why this material matters. He would say, ‘Here’s the background knowledge you need to engage in this conversation. Now, let’s have this conversation.’”
Williams said that Thompson was a fan of Negro spirituals, a jazz and blues man. “He was okay with hip-hop, but he hadn’t developed an ear for the art form. But he appreciated it as an art form, that it was poetic,” Williams said.
What will be done with Dr. Thompson’s cross-listed history and black studies class for the rest of the semester is unknown: “Decisions are still being made,” said Howard.
Thompson received a bachelor’s degree from Alcorn State University in Mississippi before completing his graduate work focusing on African-American history at Princeton. His sister Lee Ethel is very proud that although they were a poor family, Dr. Thompson worked his way through college, finishing his doctorate at age 27.
Thompson wrote a number of books; the most recent was “Mississippi Lynchings,” published last year.
Professor Quraysh Ali Lansana, director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University, was disappointed that Dr. Thompson was unable to participate in the Chicago conference, but he was stunned to learn Dr. Thompson had died.
“Dr. Thompson’s work, and in particular, his history of the black press and the importance of the black literary publishing tradition, has been critical for those of us who are writers, historians and academics,” Lansana said. Abdullahi A. Ibrahim, a colleague from MU’s History Department, says Thompson was, at heart, a poet.
“Julius made sponsoring black poetry a priority of the Black Studies Program,” he said.
Ibrahim said Thompson never completed a sentence without cracking a joke. Ibrahim remembers two of Thompson’s catchphrases: “‘You know my drift,’ or ‘We historians like to talk, but I am not going to take much of your time.’”
Carol Zu-Bolton, coordinator of the Moving Ahead program at Columbia’s Blind Boone Center, said, “Dr. Thompson opened the doors of black history to the children of the community. This past summer, he invited the Moving Ahead program children to a workshop on Swahili put on by the Black Studies Department. He gave seminars to the seniors and mentored students through the college entrance process.” Zu-Bolton said Thompson “was a great man, a dear friend and wonderful companion.”
Go to the Facebook group dedicated to the memory of Dr. Julius Thompson at missouri.facebook.com/group.php?gid=6046200207