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Bernard N. 'Tommy' Thompson, 86; Buffalo Soldier, Chauffeur for Agriculture Secretaries

November 15, 2005|From the Washington Post

Bernard N. "Tommy" Thompson, one of the last of the Buffalo Soldiers and a chauffeur for several secretaries of agriculture, has died. He was 86.

Thompson died Nov. 7 at a hospital in Washington, D.C., of complications from diabetes.

He was born Nov. 12, 1918, in Crozet, Va., near Charlottesville. A descendant of Sally Hemings, the slave said to be the mother of several of Thomas Jefferson's children, he forged another tie with history when he enlisted in the Army in 1938. He was assigned to F Troop of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, one of the all-black Buffalo Soldier regiments.

Organized in 1866, the Buffalo Soldiers got their name from Native Americans, who thought their black, curly hair resembled buffalo hair. The Buffalo Soldier regiments were merged into the integrated Army in 1951.

Thompson was based at Ft. Myer in Virginia, where cavalrymen trained in nearby woods and open fields that in a few years would be cleared for construction of the Pentagon.

"We drilled for mounted and dismounted," recalled Coley Davis, a longtime friend and fellow Buffalo Soldier. "Dismounted, we were doughboys."

Their mounted training included learning how to fire a .45-caliber pistol while riding a galloping horse, Davis said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Thompson was dispatched to the 374th Engineer Battalion to help guard the White House. A few years later, he returned to the cavalry and remained a Buffalo Soldier until 1948, when he was thrown from a horse and injured.

He received a medical discharge.

Thompson went to work as a civilian clerk typist for the Defense Department in 1949. In 1961, he joined the Department of Agriculture as a chauffeur for Secretary Orville Freeman. He also chauffeured Freeman's successors, Earl Butz, John Knebel and Bob Bergland.

When Thompson retired from government service in 1978, he founded Tommy's Limousine Service.

Thompson's wife, Manuela de Leon Thompson, recalled that Butz gave him $1,000 in start-up money and a card that served as a letter of introduction to potential clients, who included Fortune 500 executives and Washington dignitaries riding in style to Georgetown parties, Kennedy Center openings and other glitzy social events.

Regular clients included then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, former Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman and the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

Besides his wife, Thompson is survived by three children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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