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Resident Spotlight: Dr. Beatrice Blanche Saunders Thompson

A headstone on the Thompson/Henderson lot pays tribute to Dr. Beatrice Blanche Saunders Thompson (d. 1964), a physician and surgeon, and her husband Sidney James Thompson (d. 1945), a Fulton County juvenile probation officer and founder of Atlanta’s oldest boys club.

Dr. Thompson attended Atlanta University and following a short first marriage to Robert Saunders which left her a widow, she continued her education at Walden University in Nashville. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the A.M.E. church was so thoroughly impressed with her diligence and scholarship that he financed her medical education at Meharry Medical College.

She graduated with honors in 1901 and became the first African American female to practice medicine in Athens, Georgia. She cared for both African American and white patients, and she performed the first surgery by an African American physician in Athens. Dr. Thompson was part owner of the E. D. Harris Drugstore, the first African American owned drugstore in Athens.

In 1909, she opened a practice in Knoxville, Tennessee, and joined the staff of the Knoxville Medical College. Her second husband, Sidney James Thompson, enrolled as a medical student, and Dr. Thompson was one of his instructors. Sidney Thompson apparently did not complete his medical education, and the couple later relocated to Atlanta where he began working as a baker. But his passion led him to start a boys club in Atlanta under the auspices of the Law and Order League of America. This club, established in the early 1930s, was the founding organization of the current George Washington Carver Boys and Girls Club, and the club is now affiliated with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta.

Dr. Thompson’s younger sister Estelle Amelia Henderson (d. 1936) passed the Alabama bar in 1919. In Atlanta, attorney Henderson taught at Morris Brown College and served as the college’s financial agent. No record of her passing the bar in Georgia has been found, but she is listed as an attorney at law in the Atlanta City Directory and the Fulton County census records in the 1920s and 1930s.

She practiced from her office in the Odd Fellows building on Auburn Avenue. The 1921 publication of Henderson’s book on race relations, “Is Washington Alive in the Life of the Negro?” was announced in the Atlanta Constitution and endorsed by U. S. President Taft and Vice President Fairbanks. Her husband, Fred R. Henderson (d. 1958), worked as a carpenter. He learned his profession at Tuskegee Institute under Booker T. Washington. After Estelle’s death, he married Pearl Hooks Stewart (d. 1980) who is also buried on the Henderson/Thompson lot. Other family members buried on the lot include Mary Underwood Reed (d. 1933), mother of Dr. Thompson and Estelle Henderson; their stepfather, Daniel W. Reed (d. 1930); their half-brother Henry A. Reed (d. 1926) and his wife, Eloise (d. 1924).

HOF volunteer Gloria Elder as Dr. Thompson at Capturing the Spirit of Oakland tours in 2016

In 2016 the restoration of Dr. BBS Thompson’s family lot was made possible by generous donations at Oakland Cemetery’s annual Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tour. In February of this year, Dr. Thompson’s headstone and those of her family members were repaired and re-set by member of Oakland’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team.

The work began with repairing the cradlings of Estella and Fred Henderson. Cradling surrounds a single grave and is meant to mimic a bed frame. The broken cradling pieces were repaired using stainless steel pins inserted into holes drilled on the interior of the stone. The pieces were adhered with mason’s epoxy. Next, two small concrete and plaster headstones were carefully repaired using the same epoxy.

These headstones were originally given to the family of the deceased as part of a funeral home’s burial package. All of the larger headstones on the lot were re-set. To do this, the PRO Team removed the headstones and properly leveled and compacted the soil beneath them. Eighty-nine stone, a rough and angular gravel, was added to facilitate drainage. The headstones were placed back and a string line was used to make sure they were in line with one another. Something special that was done on this lot was to provide Dr. Thompson and her husband Sydney with a new granite headstone. Dr. Thompson still has her funeral home marker, but Sydney had none. The style selected in known as a “beveled companion stone” and it marks both of their grave sites. This marker type would have been available during the times of their deaths.

This article is by Dr. DL Henderson and Ashley Shares. Dr. DL Henderson is a professional genealogist and Board Trustee at Historic Oakland Foundation. Ashley Shares is Director of Preservation at Historic Oakland Foundation.

As HOF continues to restore the African American Burial Grounds, community engagement and support is critical. You can make a financial contribution to the restoration project in person at Oakland Cemetery’s Visitors Center & Museum Shop, located at the Bell Tower. Or donate online by clicking here. On the online donation page, be sure to select “African American Section” from the designation drop-down menu. Visit our African American Grounds page to learn about this restoration project in-depth. 

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