Thompson Family Papers Illustrate Decades of Service to the Detroit NAACP and a Glittering Social Life

This post is by Nora Dolliver, Labadie Collection Archives Assistant

We are very excited to announce that the Joseph A. Labadie Collection has acquired the Thompson Family Papers, a collection that offers a window into the lives and political activities of Detroit’s black professionals from the mid 1920s to the late 1960s. Mamie L. and William A. (W.A.) Thompson, originally from Tennessee, moved to Detroit in 1924. W.A. Thompson was a physician at Parkside Hospital, Detroit’s first black hospital, and eventually became their chief of staff. Both Thompsons were active in Detroit’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), at that time the nation’s largest chapter. Mamie Thompson served on the branch’s executive committee for nearly three decades and was also its treasurer for several years in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In this period, the NAACP was battling legalized housing discrimination, particularly racial covenants, and the Thompsons were active in this struggle. (One source even suggests that they personally financed a lawsuit that would eventually be the companion case to the landmark Supreme Court litigation Shelley v. Kraemer). The couple’s son, Arthur Lee Thompson, became the Navy’s first black physician in 1944.

Thompson Family at a reception
The Thompson Family at a reception celebrating the younger Thompsons

The Thompson Family Papers highlight the Thompsons’ remarkable activist efforts as well as their glamorous social lives. It is comprised mainly of personal and family photos (both posed portraits and Polaroid snapshots) and ephemera, correspondence, photographs, and awards related to the Thompsons’ activities with the NAACP. Many of the items in this collection, particularly those from the NAACP series, are worthy of further research by historians or genealogists. We are especially intrigued by one item: the guestbook for an “Interracial Fellowship Party” held by the Thompsons in 1950. We have no further details about this event, but are hopeful that one of our knowledgeable researchers will be able to tell us something about it. Besides this enigmatic object, the collection contains trophies and plaques recognizing the Thompsons’ service to the NAACP.

Thompson family outside their home
The Thompson Family outside their home in Detroit, 1968.

One highlight among the personal photographs is a scrapbook showcasing the younger Dr. Thompson’s professional accomplishments and military service. Another is a group portrait of the members of the Sorosis Literary and Art Club, of which Mrs. Thompson was apparently a member. While many of the photos have writing on the back indicating the subject, others are unidentified. Given the Thompsons’ wide social network, genealogists with family ties to Detroit may recognize some familiar faces among the many friends and family members in these photographs. Despite how little we know about the Thompson family, their papers offer a fascinating glimpse into a middle class black family’s social and political life during a tumultuous period in Detroit’s history.   

As this remarkable collection has yet to be fully processed, contact the curator with any questions.

Detroit News article
1963 Detroit News article about the dinner honoring the Thompsons' contributions to the NAACP

Sororis Literary and Art Club
Portraits of Sororis Literary and Art Club members, 1937.

Snapshots of Idlewild
Page from a photograph albmum
with family snapshots from Idlewild, Woodland and Windsor

Thompson meeting Humphrey
Dean and Louise, relatives of the Thompsons meeting U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey in Taipei, Taiwan, 1966.