An Artifact of Afro-America: Brooks Thompson’s “Blanket Chest”

High Museum of Art
High Museum of Art
Published in
6 min readApr 24, 2024

--

Neil Grasty shares research on Brooks Thompson’s artistic practice and its historical significance.

By Neil Grasty, Curatorial Intern, High Museum of Art

Blanket Chest (on the bottom right) on view in Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina. Courtesy of Neil Grasty.

Who was Brooks Thompson?

“Of course, we know that back in those days folk had different names and changed their names, and we aren’t even sure of his exact birthdate. But what we are sure of, is that formerly enslaved man who became a carpenter went on to be an artist!”

The above quote from acclaimed scholar and anthropologist Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole sums up the many discrepancies in biographical information about Brooks Thompson and others like him — likely born enslaved and denied personhood within the historical record. The earliest census record of Thompson is from 1870, with his birth year listed as being around 1849. [1] According to the National Archives and Records Administration, in 1849, Thompson and other enslaved individuals would not have been listed by name on the census. [2] Thompson’s archival anonymity prior to 1870 is an aspect of his life that is in dialogue with the enslaved Black potters featured in Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina. To account for the lack of a listed maker of most works in that exhibition, we added “maker(s) once known” in the labels (fig. 1). This way of attributing works rather than labeling their makers as “unidentified” emphasizes and acknowledges the fact that these artists were once known for the work they created and that their contributions are not going unnoticed — a sentiment that was not recognized during Thompson’s lifetime. Despite differing information because of a lack of concrete facts in the public record on Thompson’s life, some consistent details have been uncovered.

Figure 1. ___________Maker(s) once known, likely enslaved at Phoenix Stone Ware Factory (ca. 1840), and attributed to Thomas M. Chandler, Jr. (American, 1810–1854), Watercooler, ca. 1840, alkaline-glazed stoneware with iron and kaolin slip, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase in honor of Audrey Shilt, President of the Members Guild, 1996–1997,with funds from the Decorative Arts Acquisition Endowment and Decorative Arts Acquisition Trust, 1996.132. Photo by Michael McKelvey.

According to these records, his birth year is sometime between 1846 and 1868, and his birthplace is Newberry, South Carolina [3]. In these varying records, his race is documented as Black or biracial. Interestingly, his first name even varies, identified as Seabrook, Seabrooks, Brooks, or Brooke. However, one of the most consistent details is his being listed as a carpenter. Records also indicate he was once married to Jane Thompson and later to Rosa Hancock in 1889 in Georgia. Rosa Hancock was the mother of his daughter, Martha Hippard. She was born sometime around 1895 and later became a storied figure in Amelia Island, Florida.

Thompson’s 1889 marriage certificate to Thompson’s 1889 marriage certificate to the then Rosa Hancock. Georgia Archives; Morrow, Georgia; County Marriage Records, 1828–1978. the then Rosa Hancock. Georgia Archives; Morrow, Georgia; County Marriage Records, 1828–1978.

Thompson moved to Amelia Island in 1900 due to the island’s need for carpentry after the destructive hurricane of 1898. Thompson’s and, later, Hippard’s presence would leave an indelible mark on the area’s history, as much of Thompson’s known artistic production came from the island’s American Beach and Fernandina Beach communities.

Amelia Island and Brooks Thompson

Map of Amelia Island published by The Fairbanks House.

Amelia Island is located near the city of Jacksonville, Florida, and neighboring Georgia. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became home to historically significant African American communities in which Thompson and Hippard would play an active role in shaping. In 1925, they formed an organization called The Cotton Climate Claims, which later became the Nassau County Branch of the NAACP. [5] A decade after their civil rights work, Amelia Island’s notable American Beach community was founded.

Photo of A. L. Lewis, likely at American Beach, published by the A.L. Lewis Museum at American Beach, FLA.

American Beach was founded in 1935 by the Afro-American Life Insurance Company with funds from the company’s Pension Bureau. This project was led by Abraham Lincoln (A. L.) Lewis (fig. 5), cofounder of the insurance company who later became the first African American millionaire in Florida. Lewis envisioned that American Beach would be “a place where our people can have recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” [6] Lewis’s founding of American Beach was an act of radical resistance against Florida’s Jim Crow laws, which prohibited African Americans from visiting Florida’s public beaches. An esteemed great-granddaughter of Lewis, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole shared the astonishing history of American Beach (in the below clips) in a December 2023 interview I conducted with her.

Photo of Martha Hippard (right) published in An American Beach for African Americans. [6]
Martha Hippard’s American Beach home and the historical marker of Martha’s Hideaway, published by Wikimedia commons.

Soon after American Beach was established, Hippard, then in her early forties, purchased a private plot of land. Here she built a grand home, which later was added to the National Register of Historic Places as “Martha’s Hideaway.” This home was built of coquina shell bricks and contained furniture crafted by Thompson. [7] She also owned a lavish residence in Downtown Fernandina Beach. Thompson likely made Blanket Chest for this home, and in fact, as with many of his other known works, he made his furniture pieces for his daughter. While some of these have ended up in museums, dealers of Thompson’s work believe the home for which they were made is now demolished. [8]

The front of Blanket Chest. Photo courtesy of Neil Grasty.
A newel post by Brooks Thompson. Photo courtesy of Jim Bruce.
A bedroom set by Brooks Thompson, pictured in Folk Art Magazine, Fall 2003, 14–15.

In addition to her civil rights work, Hippard is remembered on Amelia Island for her entrepreneurial spirit — her Downtown Fernandina Beach home was in the same building as a grocery store and bakery she owned. [9] She also owned Plum Garden, which was a restaurant and lounge in Fernandina. [10] There is significant lore around “Martha’s Hideaway,” which is best recounted in an excerpt from my interview with Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole below.

Thompson’s legacy is undoubtedly tied to Amelia Island and his daughter, and these deep connections further the historical significance of his Blanket Chest and artistic practice. Through the pieces of Thompson’s life, we may begin to tell fuller stories of African American and American art history.

Stay connected! Follow us:
Medium | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube

About Neil Grasty

Since fall 2022, Neil Grasty has served as the High’s Decorative Arts and Design curatorial intern, funded by the Decorative Arts Trust IDEAL Internship Grant. As an intern, he created digital content for the exhibitions Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place and Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina. Additionally, Neil has researched objects from the museum’s collection. This article is a culmination of Neil’s research on a Blanket Chest (ca. 1900–1920) by Brooks Thompson and an adaptation of his lecture at the 2024 Decorative Arts Trust’s Eighth Annual Emerging Scholars Colloquium in New York City. Outside of his work at the High, he is a graduating senior at Morehouse College majoring in art history with a minor in French.

Notes:

[1] Ancestry.com, 1870 United States Federal Census, online database (Lehi, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009). Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

[2] African Americans and the Federal Census, 1790–1930, accessed April 5, 2024, https://www.archives.gov/files/research/census/african-american/census-1790-1930.pdf.

[3] Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880 United States Federal Census, online database (Lehi, UT: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010); Ancestry.com, 1920 United States Federal Census, online database (Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010). Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

[4] Ancestry.com, 1920 United States Federal Census.

[5] Annette Myers, “Martha’s Hideaway,” in The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, 3rd ed. (Fernandina Beach, FL: Giro di Mondo Publishing LLC, 2021), 44.

[6] Johnnetta Betsch Cole (great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis), interviewed by Neil Grasty, December 12, 2023.

[7] Marsha Dean Phelts, An American Beach for African Americans (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999), 48–49.

[8] Jim Bruce (dealer of Brooks Thompson’s work), interviewed by Neil Grasty, November 3, 2022.

[9] Annette Myers, “Martha’s Hideaway.”

[10] Annette Myers, “Martha’s Hideaway.”

--

--

High Museum of Art
High Museum of Art

The High is Atlanta’s art museum, bringing creativity to your everyday. Our collections, exhibitions, and programs are always here for you.