Columbia City of Women Honoree
Clarissa Minnie Thompson Allen
Clarissa Minnie Thompson, 1870s. Image courtesy Library of Congress
There must be pioneers in every profession. Some must go ahead and blaze the way for others, and those who follow can take warning by the mistakes of their predecessors. We have been too long the hewers of wood and drawers of water for our pale-faced brethren. Africa has achieved her emancipation at last. So long has she lain in the dust of oppression that it will take years, many years, to wipe that dust from our garments, but in that work we must each do our part.
-Will De Verne in Clarissa Minnie Thompson’s Treading the Winepress; or, A Mountain of Misfortune
Clarissa Minnie Thompson’s seminal work, Treading the Winepress; or, A Mountain of Misfortune, would have been among the first novels published by an African American woman in the United States had it not instead been serialized in The Boston Advocate. Yet it was and remains groundbreaking for its frank depictions of racism, classism, poverty, and violence in the post-Emancipation South—social ills that threatened African Americans regardless of their individual circumstances. Although written before 1885, Treading the Winepress’s 40 chapters are replete with love triangles, murder, angst, and numerous cliffhangers that would not seem out of place in today’s libraries. While Thompson dismissed this particular work as “a girlish protest” just a few years later, it stands as a unique window into the city of Columbia and the psyche of an upper-class, emancipated woman of color coming of age during the 1870s and 1880s.
Thompson was born on October 1, 1859, to Samuel Benjamin Thompson and Eliza Henrietta Montgomery. Enslaved on William Wallace’s Belleview plantation (present-day Cottontown), the Thompsons faced tremendous uncertainty following the deaths of Wallace’s father, Andrew, and brother, Edward, during the Civil War. Andrew Wallace’s will, probated in 1863, separated enslaved families with clinical efficiency so that his wife and nine children received equal property—a cruel and common practice among large enslavers. Wallace also stipulated “that in all cases the issue of a female slave, whether born during my life or after my death, shall follow the bequest of the mother,” ensuring that even children with unknown paternity remained enslaved.
Following emancipation, the Thompsons remained in Columbia, and patriarch Samuel B. Thompson immediately emerged as an influential member of the state’s Reconstruction-era government. After being elected to attend the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention, he served three terms in the SC House of Representatives and then as a justice of the peace and city alderman. Clarissa Thompson began attending the Howard School upon its opening in 1869, before being admitted to the South Carolina State Normal School in the mid-1870s. Under the leadership of Mortimer A. Warren, Thompson and other promising women like classmate Celia Dial Saxon, attended classes at Rutledge College on the campus of the University of South Carolina. Both the school’s location, and the fact that its students heard lectures given by university faculty, made its students de facto attendees of the integrated institution.
During her tenure at the normal school, Warren once told Thompson that, “I think you will be a good writer some day, Clarissa, but you must not make the mistake of rushing into print too early.” It was this criticism, Thompson later recounted to biographer Majors Mayor, along with her observations of the “serious dangers threatening our race,” that spurred her to begin writing Treading the Winepress.
After graduating in 1876, Thompson returned to the Howard School to teach for several years before being elected the principal of Poplar Grove School in Abbeville, South Carolina. In 1884, she accepted the job of “preceptress in Latin, algebra, physical geography, and ancient and modern History” at Allen University, where she remained until early 1886. By then, she was the eldest of nine children, and her father found himself working as a carpenter after being shut out of government jobs. It is during this period, with the rights of Black people heading towards a low point, that she commenced publication of her serial.
Starring the ill-fated De Verne and Tremaine families, Treading the Winepress seems to mine Thompson’s real-life experiences—for example, its hero, Will De Verne, finds himself cursed by the sins of his enslaver father:
Your father whipped one of his slaves—she was a poor, sick, miserable creature—until the blood gushed from every pore and I heard her utter a most fearful malediction against him and his children before she died. It makes my blood curdle to think of it.
And protagonist, Gertie Tremaine, sings the Scottish song “My Ain Countrie” to her ailing father—perhaps a nod to her own enslaver, Andrew Muir Wallace’s, Scottish homeland.
Meanwhile, the names and locations featured throughout closely resemble a postbellum Columbia, none more so than the mention that Will’s uncle, “colored postmaster” Rene De Verne, had outrageously managed to acquire the former home of “General P—,” and its grounds, with “flowers of almost every species, native and exotic…the fragrant magnolia, the stately cedar, the modest arboe vitae, the delicate mimosa,”—which is to say, a fairly accurate description of the Hampton-Preston Mansion.
Thompson did not remain in Columbia long, or even to see through the completion of Treading the Winepress. In 1886, perhaps disillusioned by relatives’ increasing disenfranchisement and lack of opportunities, she moved to Texas and was eventually hired as a teacher in the segregated Fort Worth school system. She married William Augustus Allen and spent the remainder of her life in Texas. However, she remained close to her siblings and close friends in Columbia, as evidenced by the poetry she submitted in their honor in local papers like the Southern Indicator and Palmetto Leader.
In addition to poetry, Thompson devoted her time to essays, not all of which were published. One, an address before the Texas State Teachers’ Convention, was particularly well received. In “What Will the Harvest Be?” she noted that, “The elevation of our race depends largely on the character of the work done in the school-room…A teacher’s influence may make a life, or it may mar it.” By 1920, the Allens had moved south to Rockdale, where Clarissa Thompson Allen died in obscurity in 1941. In 2019, scholars pieced together the surviving chapters of Treading the Winepress, or, A Mountain of Misfortune, which are available freely.
Haley, T. James and Booker T. Washington, eds. Afro-American Encyclopedia: Or, The Thoughts, Doings,
And Sayings of the Race ; Illustrated With Beautiful Half-tone Engravings. Haley & Florida, 1895.
Monroe, Majors. Noted Negro Women, Their Triumphs and Activities. Donahue and Hennberry, 1893.
Thompson Allen, Clarissa Minnie; Brown, Gabrielle; Willey, Eric; and MacDonald, Jean, "Treading
the Winepress; or, A Mountain of Misfortune" (2019). Undiscovered Americas. 2.
From 1884 until 1886, Clarissa Minnie Thompson taught at Allen University, a historically Black institution founded as Payne Institute and relocated to Columbia in 1880. During this time, she commenced publication of her serial, Treading the Winepress, or, A Mountain of Misfortune.