John Thompson was born into a Black family in Washington D.C. in 1941. He was the last of four children and had three older sisters: Inez, Barbara, and Roberta. His mother, Anna, was born and raised in Washington, and after graduating from Miner Teachers College, found work at a school in Compton, Maryland, where she met and later married John Robert Thompson Sr. The couple decided to return to their hometown, but Anna was unable to find work as a teacher, so she became a cleaner in white people’s homes to support her family. Racism was still widespread in American society at the time, to such an extent that Anna’s cleaning job was actually considered illegal, and Black people were still forced to live separately from whites and were segregated to certain areas of the city.
In Washington, John attended Turner Elementary School and then Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School, as his mother was devoutly religious. Partly due to his skin colour, and partly due to the fact that he could not read, the nuns decided he was ‘retarded’ and he was forced to change schools a second time. He transferred to Harrison Elementary School where his teacher, Sametta Wallace Jackson, discovered that he was dyslexic and helped him learn how to cope as best he could. In his final year at primary school, however, she had no choice but to fail him, because he was simply finding his dyslexia too difficult to manage. Unfortunately, in 1951, the owners of the projects where the Thompson family lived discovered that John’s mother had been cleaning white people’s homes and so they were evicted. Three years later, they had to move again, in order for John to attend Brown Junior High School.