Beatrice Sumner Thompson


Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Beatrice Sumner Thompson, 1874-1938


By Nancy Page Fernandez, Ph.D.

Beatrice Sumner Thompson was born into a large, well-connected mixed race family, distinguished by education, middle-class values and relative economic success. Some light skinned members flaunted the racial system by living as whites while others, like Beatrice, chose to continue individually and collectively the black freedom struggle. She became a leader in the Los Angeles black community, deploying her intelligence and skills to defend educational, economic and civic rights for African American women and men.

Beatrice Sumner Thompson was born May 4, 1874, in Boston, Massachusetts to James Beverly Beauregard Thompson and Medora Dora Gertrude Reed Thompson. Within a few years the family traveled west to Denver, Colorado, where her brother Clarence was born April 12, 1882. Her father, a veteran of the Union Navy, worked as a porter and later hotel waiter and her mother as a domestic servant. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1890 Medora married Peter Mitchell, a restaurant keeper. Beatrice's father died in 1902.

Early experiences shaped Beatrice's commitment to education, careers and civic rights for black women. She attended public schools and graduated from Denver High in 1891. With fair skin and soft wavy hair, she might easily have lived as white like her brother who earned a degree from Harvard and built a successful career in business management. Instead Beatrice chose to identify with her African heritage. By the 1890s the clerical and bookkeeping fields had become feminized, however, workplaces remained open to white women only. Beatrice struggled against race prejudice to secure a position in the Arapahoe county treasurer's office in 1892 as a general clerk and by 1895 rose to the position of assistant bookkeeper. While she came of age, a pro-suffrage coalition gathered support, and in 1893 Colorado enacted equal suffrage by referendum.

By 1900 Beatrice moved farther west to Los Angeles with her mother, brother, step-father and two new half-sisters Dora and Maud. She left her heart, however, in Denver where she had met Samuel William Thompson. The couple married in August 1900, settling in Chicago where Samuel worked in the jewelry business. They welcomed their first child on March 28, 1901, naming her, according to family lore, after Anita Garibaldi the courageous heroine of Brazil and Italy. A son Sumner Mattelle followed in 1903. The second birth was especially difficult for Beatrice. In 1905 she and the children moved to Los Angeles to live with her mother and step-father's family. Around 1909 Samuel followed and the Thompsons established their own home at 1883 West 23rd Street. He worked as a porter and then in real estate.

The Thompson house soon became a gathering place for black leaders, local and national. An early guest was likely Samuel's brother, Noah Thompson, a journalist who became a successful real estate investor and community leader who dedicated much of his life to creating economic opportunities for black Angelenos. Over the years Booker T. Washington, A. Philip Randolph, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B Du Bois were overnight visitors during their stays in Los Angeles.

California women gained the vote in 1911 as Beatrice was setting up housekeeping. She soon became a leading Los Angeles clubwoman. Delilah Beasley, writing in 1919, captured Thompson's activism: “Among other prominent offices, she has held those of secretary and president of the Women's Civic and Protective League, an organization of colored women having for its object the study of the intelligent use of the ballot and the making and enforcement of laws for the protection of colored citizens. She is an enthusiastic advocate of woman suffrage, especially as it affects the women of the race.” Beatrice joined NAACP leader Eva Carter Buckner, newspaper woman Charlotta Spear (Bass)—who took over the Eagle newspaper in 1912— and others in encouraging black men to vote and campaigning for national woman suffrage. An advocate of careers for women, Beatrice was also active in the Rho Club of the Rho Psi Phi sorority for women in the health professions.

Black clubwomen's interests intersected with national struggles for black freedom. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became a nationally established organization in 1911 and the Los Angeles branch received its charter in 1914. Beatrice became assistant secretary in 1915. The local branch agenda focused on the anti-lynching campaign, hiring discrimination, race prejudice in the public schools, and black women's admission to the county hospital nursing school. Beatrice was elected executive secretary in 1917, a position she held until 1925. While the president served as a figurehead for the chapter, the executive secretary provided leadership for shaping and executing the local agenda as well as cooperating with the national office. During her tenure Beatrice earned a reputation as an efficient, collaborative and dedicated leader.

Beatrice actively represented the branch at the state and national level. She presented a paper on “Education of the Colored People” in 1920 at the California State Conference of Social Agencies. Discussion among the largely white attendees focused on separate schools for Japanese and Mexican children. Beatrice, in a letter to NAACP Board of Directors chair Mary White Ovington, expressed her opinion that separate schools represented “merely another angle of the color question.” Race prejudice and hatred were always of concern, and especially during 1919 when violence erupted in over two dozen major cities including Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Beatrice was sent by the Los Angeles NAACP branch to investigate the events in Chicago and Omaha.


Mrs. Beatrice Sumner Thompson, Social and Civic Worker in Delilah L. Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California (Los Angeles, CA: no. pub., 1919), p. 130.

By the early-1920s internal disputes divided the Los Angeles NAACP chapter. Much of the original leadership was pushed out in 1925, including Beatrice. She and Samuel also separated during the 1920s. With economic means reduced to an allowance from Samuel and some bookkeeping income, Beatrice moved to a rented home with her son. She maintained her membership in the NAACP, demonstrating her commitment to literacy by staffing the book sales booth at conventions. Beatrice became an active member of the South End Republican Club, endorsing local and national candidates. Beatrice followed with motherly interest, and often exasperation, her daughter's career path as a dancer, actress, model, artist and writer. Anita starred with Clarence Brooks in By Right of Birth (1921) and played an Arab maid with Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad. She earned acclaim as a rising star but, given the limited opportunities for black performers, chose to pursue her creative and other passions abroad. Well-educated and talented, sensuous and beautiful, Anita romped through life among leading artists, writers and thinkers in Paris and the European avant-garde. She modeled for Chanel; Man Ray photographed her portrait—twice. Perhaps because Beatrice admired her daughter's independence more than she disapproved of her lifestyle, she continued to send money when Anita found herself between wealthy admirers.


Beatrice Sumner Thompson with W.E. B. Du Bois and others in Hollywood. The Crisis, July 1923, p. 73.

During the 1930s Beatrice remained a devoted clubwoman and registered Republican, and enjoyed an active social life of card parties, dances and movies featuring her favorite performer Otis Skinner. The date of her death is not definitively known. It is believed she died in Los Angeles although researchers have found no obituary. She is found last in the 1930 census living in Los Angeles. The California Death Index, 1905-1939, lists a Beatrice S. Thompson, age 63, died in Los Angeles on February 14, 1938. In personal and professional life, she most often used the name “Beatrice S. Thompson.” Daughter Anita recalls her mother passed just before the war began in Europe. The name, location, age at death and daughter's memory are consistent with the February, 14, 1938 record.


1880 United States Census. Denver, Arapahoe, Colorado; Roll: 88; Page: 170D; Enumeration District: 008.

1900 United States Census. Los Angeles Ward 6, Los Angeles, California; Page: 11; Enumeration District: 0051; FHL microfilm: 1240090.

1910 United States Census. Los Angeles Assembly District 70, Los Angeles, California; Roll: T624_80; Page: 8B; Enumeration District: 0215; FHL microfilm: 1374093.

1920 United States Census. Los Angeles Assembly District 72, Los Angeles, California; Roll: T625_112; Page: 10B; Enumeration District: 320.

1930 United States Census.  Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California; Page: 15B; Enumeration District: 0021; FHL microfilm: 2339867

Baltimore Afro-American, 1893-1988
“Baltimore Girl in Los Angeles,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 16, 1927, p.13.
“Reminiscences: Chapter XXI. The Pacific Coast” by Mary Ovington, Baltimore Afro-American, Feb. 3, 1933, p.24.

Beasley, Delilah L. The Negro Trail Blazers of California. Los Angeles: no pub, 1919.

California Death Index, 1905-1939. Provo: UT: Operations, Inc., 2013.

Chicago Defender, 1921-1967
“California News—Los Angeles,” Chicago Defender, April 1, 1933, p.24.

Du Bois Papers, Special Collections, University of Massachusetts Libraries.

Flamming, Douglas. Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Los Angeles Times, 1886-1995
“Candidacy of Moore Endorsed: Republican Women Pass Resolutions Commending His Qualifications,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 23, 1922, p.120.
“Quinn will make trip to country: Mayoralty candidate rests after strenuous week of speech making,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1929, p. B3.

Massachusetts Birth Records, 1840-1915. Provo: UT: Operations, Inc., 2013.

“Miss Beatrice Sumner Thompson,” The Woman's Era, Organ of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, vol. 3, no. 2, July 1896.

Reynolds, Anita with Howard M. Miller. American Cocktail: A Colored Girl in the World. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Srole, Carole. Transcribing class and gender: masculinity and femininity in nineteenth-century courts and offices. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

SurveyLA: Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey. “Women's Rights in Los Angeles Historic Content Statement, 1850-1980.” Office of Historic Resources, Department of City Planning. City of Los Angeles: October 2018, p.25.

“Woman's Suffrage Movement,” Colorado Encyclopedia,


Links to Additional Biographical Sketches

The Negro Trail Blazers of California

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