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Read articles and learn more about the Cincinnati Chamber through our related news articles

Introducing United Way’s 2024 Campaign Co-Chairs
Metro, City of Cincinnati Partner to Benefit City Employees
Recognize & Celebrate businesses & people

Great Living Cincinnatians: Honorees

Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.

The Rt. Rev. Herbert Thompson Jr.

Awarded In 2006

1934 – 2006


He was a friend to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize winner, met the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace and worked alongside many other international figures during his distinguished and inspiring career. But on the eve of being named a Great Living Cincinnatian, Bishop Herbert Thompson Jr. spoke in humble terms of his own accomplishments.

Especially when thinking of his late wife of 35 years, Russelle, who passed away in 2002 from pancreatic cancer. “She was a star, a gifted musician,” Thompson said. “When I was elected bishop, somebody told me, ‘We elected you, but we really wanted Russ.’ My regret is that she’s not here to share this with me. I would not be here as bishop of the diocese without this extraordinary woman.”

Thompson is the first African American elected to serve as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio and, in 1993, organized a summit on race relations in Cincinnati that led to the concept and development of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Raised in Harlem, his open-minded character was shaped when his father, then working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, moved the family to Fort Green in Brooklyn, a virtual melting pot of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. “I was thrown into an extraordinary community,” he recalled of moving to Fort Green at 9 years of age. “There were people from all over the United States. . .Scottish, Jewish, Hispanic, white Anglo-Saxon. . .it was like being part of the United Nations.”

Growing up, he was exposed to the arts, played the piano and became an avid ice skater. The mix of cultures had a profound impact on the young Thompson in his approach to life, his aspirations and in working with people of all backgrounds.

A veteran of the United States Air Force (1952-56), he worked as an airport mechanic for two years when he was transformed by a profound religious experience “that turned my life around,” he remembered. “I knew I had to serve the God that touched me in such a powerful fashion.”

That steered him to Lincoln University, where he graduated cum laude in 1962. He completed his seminary work at The General Theological Seminary in 1965 and was awarded the master of divinity degree. He earned his doctor of ministry from The united Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH. He was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Yale University at Berkeley, Bexley Hall, The General Theological Seminary, Kenyon College and The Hebrew Union Theological Seminary. He also serves as an honorary canon at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Long Island, NY.

Thompson was ordained to the priesthood in 1965. Following ordination, he was appointed vicar of St. Gabriel’s Church in Brooklyn, where he served six years. Concurrently, he served for three years as executive director of Interfaith Services of Brooklyn, administering programs and services for 120 churches, agencies and synagogues.

In 1971, he was elected rector of Christ Church, Bellport, NY, a suburban white parish. Seven years later, he was elected the 19th rector of Grace Church in Jamaica, NY, the “Mother Church” of the Diocese of Long Island, founded in 1702.

In 1988, he was elected bishop Co-Adjutor of the Diocese of Southern Ohio on the first ballot and was consecrated as the eighth bishop of Southern Ohio in January, 1992 – only the fourth African-American diocese bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church. The Diocese of Southern Ohio encompasses 40 counties.

In 1993, as a response to the KKK placing a cross on Fountain Square, Thompson initiated the Summit on Racism, which spawned subcommittees that worked for two years to better race relations. A direct outgrowth was the concept and development of the Freedom Center. At that request of P&G’s John Pepper, the diocese contributed $1.25 million in two grants to the center.

“I think Cincinnati is one of the finest cities in the country,” Thompson said. “Yes, it has some issues, but I have never seen the commitment across the board. . .to enable the city to move forward.”

Thompson retired at the end of 2005 after 17 years when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 72. “There is a 25-year-old trying to get out of this body,” he said with his characteristic charm. Throughout his adult life, Thompson followed his personal motto, “To reconcile, to heal, to liberate, to serve,” as a guide for all of his ministry.

Thompson served as chair of the Church Pension Fund; chair of the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief; as co-founder of Global Episcopal Ministries; trustee of St. Augustine College, Bexley Hall Seminary, General Theological Seminary, and Kenyon College; board member of Kanuga Conference Center; member, Presiding Bishop’s Commission on Black Ministries and the Coalition for Human Need; chair, Mayor’s Commission on Children; Chair ex officio, Children’s Hospital Medical Center; trustee, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Ballet and the Cincinnati Opera; and chaplain, House of Deputies.

In 1995, he received the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati Martin Luther King Jr. Dreamkeeper Award. In addition, he was a founding member of the board of the Freedom Center.

Thompson had three children: daughter Kyrie, mother of his only grandchild, Christian, both of Cincinnati; son Owen, a priest and rector of Trinity Church in Long Island, NY; and son Herb, a lieutenant commander in the Navy. “I love what I do – greatly honored to be bishop of this diocese,” Thompson said. “In the final analysis I’m just one of God’s people doing what I can.”

The Rt. Rev. Herbert Thompson Jr. died Wednesday, August 16, 2006 in Florence, Italy. He was 72.

Nominate a Great Living Cincinnatian

Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization