FREDERICK, Md (WDVM) — At one point in time, historians say an African American man born in Frederick was considered one of the best chess minds. But volunteer researchers with a local historical society had challenges finding out more about his notable life.
“Frederick has a lot of interesting people over its history. We have Thomas Johnson, Francis Scott Key, so we have these well known wealthy, white men, but here we have someone who’s African American who died at a young age but we can tell his story too,” explained Marilyn Veek, a volunteer historian with the African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society of Frederick County, or AARCH.
Theophilus Thompson was born in the city of Frederick in 1855. Veek has conducted in-depth research into Thompson’s life and she says he was likely a slave.
In 1870, he was a servant in the Higgins family home, according to Maryland State Archives.
A neighbor, John K. Hanshew, was the printer of the Maryland Chess Review, Veek says, and introduced him to the game.
“Theophilus says ‘I was watching this chess match and I didn’t want to interrupt it and ask questions but I was so fascinated by it,’ and really got into it,” said Veek.
And just a year later, Thompson published a book with his own collection of chess problems and solutions, entitled “Chess Problems: Either to Play and Mate, or Compel Self-mate in Four Moves.”
“[Thompson] became, in the chess community, apparently quite well known for his abilities and for the kinds of interesting problems that he both posed and solved,” Veek explained.
Now Montgomery County-based artisans Margot de Messieres and Tsvetomir Naydenov have created a moving art sculpture that depicts the city native. Thompson was listed in a public art survey as a figure residents wanted to see reflected in Frederick, and de Messieres and Naydenov gravitated towards the shared interest in chess.
“He sounded like a really interesting and profoundly talented person and someone Frederick should be proud of,” de Messieres said.
The more than 1,000 hand-crafted tiles, varying in color, form an elusive kinetic portrait of Thompson that also reflects his hidden history.
“We wanted him to kind of come and go in the piece and make it so that you kind of see him at some times and couldn’t see him at sometimes and sort of speak to that obscure feeling about him right now,” de Messieres said, “and hopefully we can learn more about him.”
Volunteer historians discovered an obituary for the chess expert stating that Thompson died in 1881 at 25-years-old after contracting tuberculosis.
The artwork inspired by Thompson will be displayed along Carroll Creek as part of the upcoming Kinetic Art Promenade.