Dakota Datebook

Era Bell Thompson

Saturday, November 1, 2003

On this date in 1945, the first issue of Ebony Magazine was published. Now, one doesn’t typically associate Black culture with early North Dakota, but one of the state’s most noted celebrities, an African American woman, started out on a farm near Driscoll.

Era Bell’s family moved to North Dakota in 1914 when she was nine years old. She and her three brothers were excited about the move, because they expected cowboys and Indians. But the most they got was her Uncle James, who had homesteaded here seven years before.

A few days later, Era was led into a 4-room schoolhouse full of people, including Era’s red-haired teacher, who had never before seen a black person. The experience was agonizing, with classmates laughing at her, trying to touch her hair and staring at her light-colored palms. After some time, Era made friends, but she felt completely out of place.

Era’s father had a tough go as a farmer, and three years later when Era’s mother died, the family moved to Bismarck, where he was working for Governor Lynn Frazier as a private messenger.

Even in this larger town, there were only two black students, and again, a hush fell over the schoolyard when Era showed up for school. Now in 7th grade, Era learned to loathe Friday afternoons when boy-girl games were played. Worse, one of her textbooks informed that all black people were “thick-skulled.” And on the days that slavery was discussed, Era cut class.

But Era soon distinguished herself as a gifted runner, and the track became one of the few places she fit in. However, on the bus she learned to sit in aisle seats so onlookers wouldn’t gawk at her.

After high school, Era enrolled at UND, but the YWCA refused her a room, the streetcar would pass her by when she tried to board, and job positions were suddenly filled when she applied. She finally found a job working for a Jewish family in the part of Grand Forks known as Little Jerusalem.

In college, she fell back on what she had learned from her experiences in Driscoll and Bismarck. She survived the prejudice and made friends. She also pursued her love of running, breaking five UND women’s track records – in dashes, broad jump and hurdles – and tied two national records. She also began writing for the campus paper, showing herself to have a substantial wit and talent.

When her dad died, Era went back to Mandan to run a used furniture store so she could pay off his debts. A white pastor and his family took her in as their foster child and helped her get her college degree, and from there, she went to Chicago, where she found just as much prejudice among blacks as among whites. Despite her college degree, she found very little opportunity for a good job, so in 1946, she wrote her life story, titled American Daughter.

You may be asking, “What does all of this have to do with Ebony magazine?” Well, because of her autobiography, the magazine hired Era Bell Thompson as an associate editor. But that’s not the big news. The big news is that by 1964, she became the international editor of the prestigious magazine.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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