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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Thompson, John Lay
(May 28, 1869–July 23, 1930)

–attorney and newspaper editor—was born in Decatur County in southern Iowa, grew up on his parents' farm, and attended local schools as a youth. As a young man, he moved to Des Moines and attended Callanan Normal School. Sometime after that he taught school in Missouri. By the 1890s he was back in Des Moines to stay. Over the ensuing decades, his business interests, law practice, political standing, and, most important, his editorship of Iowa's leading black newspaper, the Bystander, made him one of Iowa's most prominent and influential African American leaders. Thompson, whose career and political thinking reflected the self-help philosophy championed by national black leader Booker T. Washington, sometimes used his position as editor of the Bystander as a bully pulpit and also as a vehicle to inspire fellow African Americans to overcome their diminished economic and political status in society.

    Thompson secured political positions considered especially prestigious for African Americans in an age of tokenism and unchecked discrimination. A Republican, Thompson was appointed file clerk for the Iowa Senate in 1894 and file clerk for the Iowa General Assembly in 1896. In 1899 he became the first African American elected to the Polk County Republican Central Committee. The following year he ran unsuccessfully for justice of the peace in Des Moines Township. He also served as Polk County's deputy county treasurer, and in 1911 and 1912 was deputy clerk in the Hall of Archives Historical Building in Des Moines.

    As the ambitious Thompson established political and business relationships, he attended Iowa Business College, graduating in 1896. Two years later the 32-year-old earned both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Law at Drake University and became licensed to appear before the Iowa Supreme Court. Thompson enjoyed local acclaim as an orator, earning a gold medal at a local competition.

    As his leadership reputation grew, Thompson married, started a family, and became involved as a leader in black society, fraternal life, and church life. He wed Maud Olivia Watkins in 1900. They had two children, Enola and John. Thompson was active in several fraternal organizations and also served as a leader in the Union Congregational Church in Des Moines.

    In 1896, the same year Thompson finished at Iowa Business College, he put his business training to use by purchasing the Bystander, a newspaper that had just begun publishing two years earlier. His ability to maintain and even expand this fledgling newspaper in an age when black newspapers experienced a low survival rate ranks as a considerable accomplishment. Thompson's editorship of the Bystander may be the most significant legacy of his life.

    Not content to report news about African Americans in Des Moines alone, he broadened coverage statewide by paying summer visits to blacks in communities around the state and reporting their doings, emphasizing good, encouraging stories. He also established a network of local correspondents around the state and included their incoming news. The paper had a circulation of about 2,000, and Thompson was known nationally as a publisher. He was a vice president of the Western Negro Press Association in 1907 and treasurer of the National Negro Press Association in 1912. Also in 1912, at Booker T. Washington's request, Thompson spoke about his editorship of the Bystander at the annual meeting of the National Negro Business League.

    A supporter and acquaintance of Booker T. Washington, Thompson espoused Washington's self-help views in innumerable articles. Like Washington, Thompson encouraged blacks to start their own businesses and support black business owners, measures to uplift the race economically. Washington's theory, which Thompson echoed, was that if blacks improved their economic status and proved their reliability as hard workers, and de-emphasized political activism, full civil rights would naturally follow. Demonstrating his commitment to this view, Thompson helped form and lead in 1907 the Iowa auxiliary to Washington's National Negro Business League. In addition to owning a newspaper, Thompson put his principles into practice when he opened the three-story brick Thompson Hotel in Des Moines in 1915. Two years later he wrote and published a pictorial history of the nation's first training camp for black officers conducted at Fort Des Moines.

    In 1920, shortly after he printed the Fort Des Moines book, Thompson sold the Bystander to Laurence Jones, founder of the Piney Woods School in Mississippi. Thompson died 10 years later at the age of 61.
Sources, besides the Bystander itself, include Joseph Boris, ed., Who's Who in Colored America (1927–1941); Henry G. LaBrie III, "James B. Morris Sr. and the Iowa Bystander," Annals of Iowa 42 (1974), 314–22; Bill Silag et al., eds., Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838–2000 (2001), chaps. 8 and 12; August Meier and Elliott Redwick, From Plantation to Ghetto (1976); Leola Nelson Bergmann, The Negro in Iowa (1969); and Allen W. Jones, "Equal Rights to All, Special Privileges to None: The Black Press in Iowa, 1882–1985," in The Black Press in the Middle West, 1865– 1985, ed. Henry Lewis Suggs (1996).
Contributor: Jack Lufkin

Cite as: Lufkin, Jack. "Thompson, John Lay" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 26 May 2018