Dr. Floyd Thompson
Summary of a 1991 oral history by L. Patterson; 1996
Dr. Floyd Thompson was born in Houston, Texas, in August, 1914. He moved to Tucson with his family when he was 5 years old. His mother died while he was still young and the family was raised by his father.
Dr. Thompson attended historic Dunbar School which, at the time, consisted of two rooms and a basement. He then attended Tucson High School. His father's determination that one of his children would attend college inspired Floyd to continue his education. He attended Dental School at Howard University in Washington, D.C. While attending Howard, he met his wife, then Nellie Crawford.
The year of his graduation in April, 1942, he was also commissioned as an first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Dental Corps. While serving in the army he was stationed at Fort Huachuca and in Guadalcanal. After his discharge, he return to Tucson and started his dental practice in an office located on South Main Street.
Not only serving the community through his dental practice, Dr. Thompson also worked to help improve opportunities for African-Americans in Tucson. As a member of the NAACP, he worked to change the practices of the downtown store owners who refused to allow Blacks to eat or drink in their stores. Three of the five Black dentists in Tucson started in his office.
Before Dr. Thompson retired in 1987, he had moved his office to the Tucson House. He and his wife have reared six children. They now also have ten grandchildren, seven of whom live in Tucson.
Summary of an Interview with Dr. Floyd Thompson; 1991
by Lanetta Denise Patterson
I interviewed Dr. Thompson at his home on March 13, 1991, and again on April 29, 1991. This was part of the African American Society Internship Program. This year's theme is "Early Black Settlers in Tucson."
Dr. Thompson is still a very busy man. His days are filled with activities and it's rare to catch him at home before 4:00 p.m. In spite of his busy schedule he gave of his time willingly for these two interviews. It's hard to believe this August he'll turn 77. He is a person who appears to be very relaxed around others. He doesn't believe in being flashy and dresses accordingly. His articulate speech immediately alerts you to the type of intellect with which you are dealing -- a person who is serious, yet casual and soft spoken, but very direct and clear in the things that he says. His warm and friendly personality instantly placed me at ease.
Born the youngest of three in Houston, Texas, in August, 1914, Dr. Thompson's family moved to Tucson when he was five in 1919 in search of better job opportunities for his father during World War I. His mother died while he was still young and the family was raised by his father. Both of his siblings, one brother and one sister, are now deceased.
He began his memories with those of elementary school. Dr. Thompson attended historic Dunbar and recalled, "At that time there was only one school for Negro children who fell in the elementary category. Regardless of where one lived in Tucson, they had to attend Dunbar School. At that time Dunbar School consisted of two rooms and a basement. The first through eighth grades were taught in this two-room structure." Upon being promoted to the ninth grade, one then attended the integrated Tucson Senior High School. Dr. Thompson recalled his eighth grade class of 1928 as being the second to enter Tucson High School which was constructed in 1926. He also remembered being told that although the high school was integrated at the time, "They had the option of making it an all white school any time the number of Black students exceeded 25. The usual number was less than 25. That included freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. I suppose then they would have placed us in a little hole somewhere with two or three teachers and called it Tucson Black Senior High School. Fortunately, I say fortunately because we knew we couldn't adequately teach the children (or) give them the education they give white kids at a large school, during my tenure there it never exceeded 25." As a deciding factor in the continuation of his education he recalled his father having a hard life and being determined that one of his three children would attend college. "He had a menial income but he was willing to share what he had with us. He was the one, I would say (who) gave me the biggest push." Dr. Thompson also recalled his dislike for hard work. "I didn't want to do menial jobs or anything that was hard work. I wanted to do something where I could make a decent salary in life. It was common to see (Black) people without an education in Tucson, with a pick and shovel." After his high school graduation he moved across the country to the city of Washington, D.C. where he attended Howard University's Dental School. As to why he chose Howard, he stated, "I had seen many Howard graduates and was impressed by them. So I chose to cast my lot there, and I've never regretted it."
While attending Howard, he met his wife, then Nellie Crawford. The year of his graduation in April, 1942, he was also commissioned as an army first lieutenant in the Dental Corps. "It was the beginning of World War II, and the entire class was taken down to Walter Reed Hospital and given physicals to see if we were fit for military service. In other words, we had our commission before we had our D.D.S. degrees." By December of the same year, he was married and stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. During a time when the country was rife with racism, he didn't remember any during his four years of military service. "The army was salvation to a young dentist coming out, (and I worked) with beautiful fellas who were unselfish and knowledgeable."
After serving in the army from July, 1942 until February, 1946, being stationed at Fort Huachuca and in Guadalcanal, he returned to Fort Huachuca and was discharged from William Beaumont Hospital in Texas. Upon his return to Tucson, he remembered having trouble finding an office. Though there were plenty of spaces for rent, when he inquired about an office in person he encountered prejudice. "As soon as they saw I was Black, their face became red and the office became rented." "Oh, I'm sorry," they would say, "we rented that yesterday, and my wife didn't tell me." To which he replied, "Are you sure it's not because of (my) race?" And they would reply, "Oh no, I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body." His expression soured as he stated, "I have seen very few whites that discriminate who admit it. You just begin to wonder. You go overseas, dodge bullets and half starve yourself to death, (hearing the entire time), it's a grand ol' flag, a grand ol' flag; come back here and nobody wants to rent you an office. You start to question (yourself), how grand is that old flag?"
Dr. Thompson was finally rented an office by E. D. Herreras, located on South Main Street. Mr. Herreras had at least 100 names on the waiting list for the office, but immediately gave the office to Dr. Thompson. Dr. Thompson recalled the day: "Mr. Herreras was doing some maintenance work on the building when I walked in. I asked when it would be available for occupancy, and he replied it would be soon. He then told me to put my name on the list. He inquired as to what I would use the office for. When I told him a dentist office, he stopped working, looked up at me and said, 'You consider this office yours. I can forget about the other names on the list.' " He considered Mr. Herreras one of his great boosters. Dr. Thompson's search for an office was not the only indignity he suffered. As a member of the Dental Association he was subject to a gentlemen's agreement. He was to enter only after the others had finished their dinner. I asked if there were ever a time he thought about quitting the association. He replied, "I have the same philosophy as Jackie Robinson: just let me get my foot in the door, and one day I'll be in." That day arrived when a distinguished dentist, Dr. Paul Bennet, saw him outside during dinner at one of the meetings. He said, "What are you doing standing out here?" Dr. Thompson then told him of the gentlemen's agreement. To which he replied, "Come right in here and sit next to me, and if anyone says anything, they can deal with me." "No one else had ever spoken up for me," Dr. Thompson said.
Unselfishly bearing his cross for future generations, he stated with pride, that one of the three men who started in his office is currently president of the Arizona State Board of Dental Examiners. "If I hadn't accepted (that) gentlemen's agreement, who knows? There might still be that agreement that no Blacks would ever be a member."
As a member of the NAACP, he was also instrumental in changing the practices of the downtown store owners who did not allow Blacks to eat or drink in their stores. "We had a strategy. Do you remember the old Martin Drug Store? Creed Taylor was selected to ask Andy Martin if he would allow Black people to get some water there. Then Dorsey Watson was to approach the manager of the Woolworth's on Congress and I was to do the same at Walgreen's, also on Congress. When we asked them, Mr. Martin said he was willing if the other two stores would join him. They said the same thing. These were the first three places where we could get a soda."
Throughout his life Dr. Thompson has been a catalyst for change, suffering many indignities so that future generations wouldn't have to. There are also others he credits for standing by him when it wasn't popular. Stewart Udall, brother of retired Congressman Morris Udall, was one of these fine individuals. Mr. Udall, a lawyer, did free legal work for the NAACP. In both of his interviews Dr. Thompson remembered to credit those fine individuals who helped him along the way. He also said, "For three or four who didn't like me, there was one or two others who did."
Dr. Thompson has a unique philosophy which is, "Those that come before should not mind paving the way for those who are yet to come." It's easy to feel that he is genuine in his statement. Yet it is not a feeling based totally on words. It is based on actions. There are five Black dentists in Tucson. Three of them started in his office. Three of the five also attended Howard University. There was a certain pride reflected in his face when he stated, "In light of the chance I gave them, they hope to one day be able to return the favor to other young Black dentists."
Before Dr. Thompson retired in 1987, he had moved his office to the Tucson House. He and his wife have reared six children, three boys and three girls. They now also have ten grandchildren, seven of whom live in Tucson. For as long as he's been here in Tucson, Dr. Thompson has also been a member of Mount Calvary Baptist Church. It remains the only organization of which he is a member. He recalled that his faith in God kept him strong. "As a dentist with a private practice, I never knew what my salary was going to be at the end of the month. You just do the best job you can and hope that people will pay you for it."
My personal guess is that he must have done better than his best. Anything I've ever heard or read about him has always been complimentary, not only as an outstanding Black leader in the community, but also as a human being. I was completely in awe of having met Tucson's first Black dentist, such a humble man, untouched by the fast life, unconcerned with the materialism that surrounds us, a credit to his father, family and himself. When asked for something he would like the youth of my generation to remember, he replied, "Things don't just happen overnight. What you're enjoying today didn't happen because of the effort that you youngsters have put forth. You've put forth an effort, but you didn't have as far to go, or as much suffering. Show appreciation and say, 'We're certainly glad that you have brought us this far, and we pledge to carry on and pledge to never have a relapse.' Then just keep fighting until it's complete."
I personally would like to thank Dr. Thompson for the effort he has put forth in the fight for equality. I would also like to think that my generation will put forth the lasting part of that effort and continue the struggle.
Torres, Alva. "Tucson's First Black Dentist Reminisces," (part 1) The Tucson Citizen, June 19, 1990.
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