Bernard N. Thompson
Sergeant, United States Army
By Joe Holley
COURESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST
November 25, 2005
Bernard N. "Tommy" Thompson, 86, one of the last of the Buffalo Soldiers and a chauffeur for five secretaries of agriculture, died November 7, 2005, of complications from diabetes at Providence Hospital in the District of Columbia. He as 86.
Sergeant Thompson was born November 12, 1918, in Crozet, Virginia, near Charlottesville, Virginia. A descendant of Sally Hemings, the slave said to be the mother of several children of Thomas Jefferson's, he forged another tie with history when he enlisted in the Army in 1938. He was assigned to F Troop of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, one of the historic Buffalo Soldier regiments. Organized in 1866, the Buffalo Soldiers got their name from American Indians, who thought their black, curly hair resembled buffalo hair. The Buffalo Soldier regiments were merged into the integrated Army in 1951.
Thompson was based at Fort Myer, Virginia, where he and his fellow cavalry men trained in nearby woods and open fields that in a few years would be cleared for construction of the Pentagon.
"We drilled for mounted and dismounted," recalled Coley Davis, a longtime friend and fellow Buffalo Soldier. "Dismounted, we were doughboys." Their mounted training, Davis said, included learning how to fire a .45-caliber pistol while their legs gripped the sides of their galloping horses.
On December 7, 1941, Thompson was dispatched to the 374th Engineer Battalion to help guard the White House. "He was a proud Buffalo Soldier," Davis said. "He wanted to get back into the cavalry."
He got back after a few years, voluntarily taking a reduction in rank from Staff Sergeant to buck Private. He remained a Buffalo Soldier until 1948, when he was thrown from a horse and injured his back. He received a medical discharge.
Thompson went to work as a civilian clerk typist for the Defense Department in 1949. He stayed at Defense until 1961, when he joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a chauffeur for Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman. He also chauffeured Freeman's successors, Earl Butz, John Knebel and Bob Bergland.
As his granddaughter Li Thompson recalled, Thompson became almost a member of the family with the Agriculture Department officials who rode with him, particularly Freeman and Butz. He knew their families, traveled with them on official trips overseas and often accompanied them to various Washington social functions, including events at the White House.
When he retired from government service in 1978, he founded Tommy's Limousine Service, his shiny black Lincoln Town Cars featuring a distinctive yellow-on-white insignia of a Buffalo Soldier on the driver's-side door. Thompson's wife recalled that Butz gave him a thousand dollars in start-up money and a card that served as a letter of introduction to potential clients.
It was literally a mom-and-pop operation, with his wife answering the phone and Thompson behind the wheel. Other family members, including nieces, nephews and children, helped over the years.
His clientele included Fortune 500 executives and Washington dignitaries riding in style to Georgetown parties, Kennedy Center openings and other glitzy social events. Regular clients included then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Sara Lee executive Elynor Williams and the Fanjul family of Flo-Sun Sugar fame in Florida.
"He could command a room," Li Thompson said. "You'd think he was secretary of agriculture. He had a certain aura about him."
A son, Jose Miguel Thompson, died in 2002.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Manuela de Leon Thompson of Upper Marlboro, Maryland; three children, Cecilia Margarita Thompson of Upper Marlboro, Bernard Nathaniel Thompson of Fairfield and Juan Manuel Thompson of Washington; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Sergeant Thompson is to be buried with full
military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on 6 December 2005.