The material in this collection addresses American race relations and scholarly treatment of race from about 1940 to 1970. The bulk of the records date from 1920 to 1970. Included are manuscripts of papers by Thompson, his thesis, a bound volume of selected writings, personal and professional correspondence, printed matter, research notes, proofs, departmental budgets and other materials relating to the study and teaching of sociology. Primary sources include handwritten autobiographical histories written by African American students and surveys from a nationwide graffiti project. Major subjects in the manuscripts include race relations in the United States and in other countries, the South, religion in the South, international plantation systems, and sociological anthropology. There is also a small amount of material on the sociology of language. Also included are histories of the Department of Sociology, articles presented in symposia and conferences by Thompson, correspondence concerning the development, establishment, and operations of the Duke Center for Southern Studies (1965 to 1969) and the formation of a Black Studies program (1969). There are also papers from the Mayor's Committee on Interracial Affairs of Durham from 1945. Other materials include newspaper articles which address problems and violence in race relations and publicity of race relations events at Duke.
In addition to scholarly topics in sociology, this collection introduces perspectives on race relations at Duke University during the politically active 1960s and 1970s. There are a number of articles about Duke-sponsored race relations learning activities. Thompson was a strong advocate of learning about personal racial heritage and understanding social structures and events though that frame. He tried for many years, without success, to gain the Ford Foundation's sponsorship of race relations conferences and seminars; this topic received much attention from scholars in sociology. Correspondents include contemporary sociologists Herbert Blumer, Charles Ellwood, Eric Hoffer, Everett Hughes, and Howard Jensen. Thompson's greatest influence was Robert E. Park, a former instructor who was also an expert on race relations theory and plantation systems.
The Edgar T. Thompson papers were originally unorganized. Folders contained many types of documents covering a variety of topics and were loosely grouped by date according to year of accession of the material. The folders have since been further grouped into several series, and further by date within each series, where applicable. Many items in this collection are undated. A list of Thompson's writing can be found at the front of the bound volume The Papers of Dr. Edgar T. Thompson.