Famous consultant and forgotten minister
by John Buehrens
Clarence Bertrand Thompson (1882 – 1969) was a person of outstanding
accomplishments, but as a Unitarian minister—one of a mere handful of
mixed racial heritage in the denomination a century ago—he is virtually
unknown among us today.
His mother, Medora Reed, was the daughter of a slave who escaped with
her to Boston. (The father was the slave owner.) Clarence's father, James
Beauregard Thompson, was born free, served in the Union Navy, became
a jeweler, and joined the Boston black community's elite Essex Club.
Reed and Thompson married in 1868, moved to Denver—where Clarence was
born—in 1880, and when their marriage ended, Medora moved to Los Angeles
with her son in 1890.
Clarence finished high school at 15 and earned a law degree from the
University of Southern California at 18. Drawn to The Fellowship, an
independent liberal congregation in Los Angeles, he was chosen its assistant
minister in 1905. Urged to obtain a Harvard degree, he enrolled there
in 1906, earning a B.A. in one year, an M.A. in sociology and economics
During those two years Thompson also served as minister of the Unitarian
Church of Peabody, Massachusetts, and was in fellowship with the American
Unitarian Association. Evidently he had not discussed his racial heritage.
When he became engaged to writer-lecturer Maravene Kennedy, reports that
he was “crossing the color line” made the Boston press. It was also news
to Kennedy, who married him nonetheless.
Soon Thompson noticed that some of his parishioners were turning to
other clergy for their weddings and funerals. When he asked the church
board to pass a resolution about this disregard for his ministerial prerogatives,
they declined. He submitted his resignation. When it was refused, he
stayed on a year, finishing his book The Churches and the Wage Earners,
which challenged churches to overcome class prejudices and to devote
half of their pulpit time to social issues. His own sermons were published
weekly in the Salem Evening News. For a time, he worked unloading trucks
to experience the laboring life himself.
But when he left the pulpit in 1908, he disappeared from Unitarian
history. I learned about him by chance from Dr. Lawrence Howard of Pittsburgh,
a retired professor of management who is African American.
Rejecting socialism as based in class hatred, Thompson joined Edward
Filene, a pioneer in using worker input in management decisions, at the
Boston Chamber of Commerce. There he encountered the management theories
of Frederick Winslow Taylor.
Appointed lecturer on manufacturing at Harvard's new Business School
in 1910 , Thompson became an exponent of “Taylorism,” but he challenged
Taylor's elitism in his 1914 book Scientific Management. He turned down
a full professorship at Harvard in 1916 and became instead a pioneer
in international management consulting. He settled in France, where in
1934 he was awarded the Legion of Honor.
Thompson insisted that real scientific management needed to be democratic,
providing for self-governance and unlimited opportunity for all, and
watched with horror as “efficiency experts” became agents of centralized
control in totalitarian states. By 1940, he had lost faith in any
gospel of economic efficiency.
Returning to the U.S., he began to reinvent himself, at age 58, as a biochemist.
After studies at Harvard and Berkeley, he researched the cellular biochemistry
of the immune system at Berkeley until his retirement at 65. He continued
his research at a lab in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he died at the age