July 14, 1922 - May 25, 2020
Author, historian, activist and civic trailblazer Jessie Marie Thorpe transitioned to a New Life on May 25, Memorial Day, 2020. She was 97.
Born July 14 (Bastille Day), 1922 in Waynesboro, Virginia, she spent most of her early childhood there when not traveling with her mother Mary Italy Venia, who was a self-employed “domestic arts engineer” for upscale families in Westchester and Long Island, NY.
She graduated from Bordentown School in New Jersey, a boarding high school for African Americans, where she honed her formidable skill as a seamstress. After graduation she went to live with family friends in the Bronx, NY, and was sewing children’s clothing and attending Hunter College part time when she met husband-to-be Herbert Thorpe.
They met through the matchmaking friend of a friend in his circle of NYU buddies: during their courtship she worked with the group to write, edit and publish one edition of a magazine that preceded the now iconic Ebony. The two were married at St. Augustine Presbyterian Church on January 27, 1951 by Rev. Edler G. Hawkins (who in 1964 became the first African American Moderator of the United Presbyterian Church of North America) — then honeymooned in a cabin in New Jersey’s Kittatiny Valley State Park. When her new husband had trouble starting a much-needed fire in the fireplace, Jessie cheerfully stepped in to spark wood to roaring flame.
The couple lived their first married years in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn: Jessie found work again as a seamstress and then for a direct mail company while Herbert was employed as an electrical engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After their two children, Jessica and Richard Clifton, arrived and were growing – and the Navy Yard was set to close – the two moved to rural Rome, NY, where Herbert found a position at the Rome Air Development Center.
Almost immediately, Jessie transferred her membership from Brooklyn’s Siloam Presbyterian Church to the First Presbyterian Church of Rome; Herbert joined later. As one of its long-standing members, she served over the years as a Sunday School teacher, led Bible Study and often spoke in the Adult Study classes.
As they settled into life in Rome, NY, Jessie learned to drive (at night), worked a few retail jobs and then applied for and was hired as a library aide for Rome Public Schools. She worked at Barringer Elementary School and John Joy Elementary School until retiring in 1984: alumni of her library still remember her fondly.
In no time, Jessie and Herbert Thorpe gained recognition as consummate civic servants and champions of cultural edification. They helped organize the Rome NAACP branch, and were celebrated as stellar role models for young people of all ages.
During the late 1960s Jessie spearheaded Black Teens in Action to help Rome youth learn about and celebrate African American heritage. In 1971 she became a co-founder of the Afro-American Heritage Association (AAHA) and served at least one term as president of the not for profit, and as chair of its Archive Committee. The AAHA still mounts Rome’s annual Black History Month program and sponsors an annual award for high school seniors.
During the 1980s, Jessie combined her deep love for children and for the theater (she once took classes with New York’s famed Negro Ensemble Company) to create the Afro-American Children’s Theater. She and Herbert also hosted Fresh Air Fund children from downstate for many years, and for six years sheltered at-risk youth through the Oneida County Runaway and Homeless Youth Program.
Deceptively diminutive at just five feet tall and meticulously fashionable, Jessie was an extraordinary woman who accomplished extraordinary things in her 97 years.
In 1992, at age 70, she earned her B.A. in history from Utica College. A year later, in 1993, she researched, wrote and published An Introductory History of African Americans in Rome, New York. The 77-page chronology is housed in Jervis Library’s Reference Collection and will tentatively be available online by the end of this year.
In 1994 Jessie published An Introductory History of African Americans in Oneida County, NY, and had been working on a novel titled The Indigents when she became incapacitated.
She was also a member for Rome’s Wednesday Morning Club for several years, and served as its recording secretary.
Jessie Marie Shorts Thorpe had a wry wit and sense of humor, disarming smile, and razor-sharp tongue that never wandered far from truth. She was a beautiful, bigger-than-life human being — a force to be reckoned with, respected, and remembered fondly and forever — who loved books, dancing, old movies, birds, trees, chocolate, her cultural heritage, her family, her beloved “Herbie” and God.
She leaves behind to re-calibrate the world without her devoted husband of 69 years Herbert Clifton Thorpe; sister-in-law Grace Brathwaite; daughter Jessica Thorpe son Richard Clifton Thorpe (and wife Vanessa); granddaughters Maisha Sebastiany (and husband Lee), and Stephanie, Natalie and Leslie Thorpe; grandson Kahlil Davis (and partner Sarah); great-grandson Gibran Pierce, great-granddaughters Azariah Sebastiany and Khepri Davis; niece Debra Rodgers (and husband Mitchell), and her sisters and brother; and nephew Joseph Thorpe Jr.
Funeral services will be private. Interment will be in Oak Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, Waynesboro, Virginia. Memorial contribution may be made to First Presbyterian Church, 108 W. Court St., Rome, New York 13440 or A. A. Historical Association, P.O. Box 451, Rome, NY 13442. Arrangements are entrusted to Prince-Boyd & Hyatt Home For Funerals, Inc., 210 W. Court Street, Rome, NY 13440.
You may view the obituary and send a message of sympathy online at www.princeboydhyatt.com.