Alone at a relative’s home in Oakland, Sims Thompson walked on his own to open the front door. He was a bit frail, but he moved around fine. He sat on a reclining chair with a black cat cuddled on its armchair. His mind was plenty sharp, too, and, frankly, during a conversation in which he was supposed to discuss his life’s story, Thompson couldn’t finish a childhood memory without ending up in commentary about current affairs and politics, from the proposed annexation of North Richmond to the Trump presidency.
“I don’t know what schools are teaching these young people. They don’t teach them the real history,” Thompson said. “How can Christopher Columbus discover something that’s already occupied?”
Today, sadly, the fiery, 85-year-old community advocate is in hospice care. And it was telling, ahead of our interview, that members of the very government agencies he’s enjoyed challenging over the years were among the first to inform the media of his grave condition in the hope that Thompson’s notable life story would be documented.
“Anytime I watch the news, I don’t stick with one story,” Thompson warned. “I go directly to another story on the same topic, and then another. You can’t go to one story. You won’t have the whole story.”
At one point during our interview, I interrupted Thompson, probably rudely, as he continued on about the troubles with cable television news. We could talk about CNN and FOX all day, I said, but what I want to know about is you. Your life’s story.
Thompson nodded, smiled a little. It took me a while to figure it out. While bouncing from stories of his early years in rural Arkansas to issues involving Trump and the media, he had been telling his story. I just wasn’t listening properly.
For example, at one point during out conversation he compared the current time period with Trump as president to Herbert Hoover’s presidency during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Amid that discussion, Thompson talked about how he grew up in the 1930s.
“I had a lot of care, both sides of the family, my mother’s side and father’s,” Thompson said. “My grandmother had 10 sisters, and they married into quite a few other families in Norphlet and Smackover (Arkansas).”
The Depression didn’t affect Thompson’s rural family the way it affected so many others across the U.S., he said.
“Everyone in the area was connected by blood or by marriage. You raise your hogs, you raise your cattle, prepared your own meat, you raise your corn, whatever your needs were, you and your family members provided for each other,” Thompson said. “I didn’t have any real disparities or wants because the family was self-sufficient.”
Self-sufficiency in communities was – and remains – key to survival, Thompson says.
Born in 1932, Thompson was raised by a father especially proud to have a son. “Wherever he went, I was there,” he said. Sometime after his parents separated, when Thompson was 8 years old, he moved with his father to North Richmond. He attended Dover Elementary while his remarried father worked for the longshoremen.
They lived in a trailer in North Richmond up until WWII ended, and later built their own homes on the property in what was then a farming community that lacked utilities, Thompson said.
Thompson said the disparities in the Richmond area were clear, as banks wouldn’t provide loans to African Americans. At that, Thompson swiftly departed from the biographical portion of his discussion in order raise issue with a relatively recent, although long-discussed effort to incorporate North Richmond into the city of Richmond. He questioned whether such a move would benefit the unincorporated — and to this point somewhat self-sufficient — African American enclave.
“People have to speak out,” Thompson said. “I still call Supervisor John Gioia’s office regularly.”
Sims went to Roosevelt Junior High and then Richmond Union High. He ran track in high school, and attended Contra Costa College before heading off to the Korean War. Following his military service, he held several jobs, including with the Brodie Meter Company in Berkeley, as a welding helper at a veterans hospital, in the canneries around the Bay Area, as a drill press operator at a since-shuttered Caterpillar facility, and also custodian for the VA hospital in Oakland and for the County of Alameda.
He’d grown up learning the need to work hard and to provide for one’s self, one’s family and one’s community. That’s why, after retiring, Thompson became devoted to community service.
“I thought, ‘I have something to say,’” Thompson said.
Since then, Thompson has been among local residents who have set the bar for community participation. In June, Thompson’s two decades of public service were recognized with a congressional recognition by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, as well as a commendation by Richmond police Chief Allwyn Brown and Supervisor John Gioia. A letter by the police chief detailed Thompson’s public contributions.
Quite apparently, Thompson has walked his talk.
There was his participation in the annual Richmond Fire/Police Toy Program, taking an “active role in loading toys and clothing for needy families,” the chief said. As a past president of the Cortez-Stege Neighborhood Council, Thompson was a “staunch advocate for safety and neighborhood beautification,” Brown added.
Thompson said Michelle Milam, the City of Richmond’s crime prevention manager, had been one of his main contacts for city issues that needed addressing.
“You are a regular reporter of blight, crime and neighborhood concerns to the police department, so much so that you have routinely driven around the city each day reporting crime and safety issues,” Brown said.
From National Night Out to the Iron Triangle Easter Egg Hunt to working closely with the late Lillie Mae Jones on Iron Triangle neighborhood issues, Thompson was ever-present. Still is. Even from hospice care, the community advocate who once shared his opinions at every possible community hearing and meeting continues to call up his elected and city representatives to deliver an earful.
“Our system that we’re supposed to be paying taxes for, they’re not performing their jobs,” Thompson said. “So who is looking out for we the people?”
That’s been the issue all along. Mattering more than whether Herbert Hoover can be compared to Donald Trump, Thompson knows the way a community can weather economic and political storms: participation. From his upbringing in rural Arkansas, where his family was somewhat insulated from national economic pressures as they raised and prepared their own food, Thompson has been working to help the Richmond and North Richmond communities become not just successful, but self-sufficient.
Thompson doesn’t believe any one person should be standing up for the community and participating. We all should, he says.
“I try to let my son know about his kinfolks,” Thompson said. “You need to pass that history on to the family. I was born with that tradition.”
It’s a tradition and reputation that will last long after Thompson passes on. As Chief Brown put it: “You are a living example of service, active engagement, and being a committed Richmond resident.”