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Era Bell Thompson on my Doorstep

It depends on whether you turn left or you turn right, but either way, you are driving right up to a fascinating, yet obscure, historic site. I’m talking about Exit 190 of Interstate 94, the Driscoll Exit.

If you go north, you come to the neglected state historic site, Camp Banks, with its decrepit monument to Chaska, the Dakota scout. The scout served with the Sibley Expedition of 1863 and was poisoned by the soldiers, who mistakenly believed Chaska had played some part in the killing of one of their civilian contractors.

If you go south, you pass through the little town of Driscoll, and you see a sign saying, “Welcome to Driscoll: Home of North Dakota Hall of Famer Era Bell Thompson.” Drive on, and just south of town, in the Driscoll Township Cemetery, you will find her grave.

You will seek and find it, that is, if you know enough about Era Bell Thompson to be gripped by her story. Much of it is contained in her 1946 autobiography, American Daughter, published by University of Chicago Press.

I gave American Daughter a careful reading, and I read quite a bit of ambivalence in her recollections of life in Driscoll, Mandan, Bismarck, and Grand Forks. Born in 1905 in Des Moines, child of an AfroAmerican family with EuroAmerica intermarriage, Era Bell came with her parents to a rented farm in Burleigh County. Her father was a talented man with little experience in or appetite for farming.

Era Bell Thompson was not shocked by the physical environment of the northern plains; she writes lyrically of the prairies; but there were strains in the social and cultural environment, about which I should talk on another day.

Era’s mother died young. Her father acquired a farm of his own, raised a good flax crop, and sold out favorably. He moved to Mandan and Bismarck, rather famously serving as a messenger for Governor Lynn Frazier at the capitol.

Here the Thompson story intersects with another line of inquiry I have commenced, on the invitation of Quintard Taylor, the country’s foremost scholar of AfroAmerican history in the American West, to write a sketch of Bismarck’s Second Baptist Church for his website, Black West. The Thompsons were active in this congregation for some years.

Era Bell went on to college at the University of North Dakota and Morningside College, and then, after some struggle to find suitable employment, to an exceedingly distinguished career as journalist, author, and editor, including as a contributing editor of Ebony magazine.

There is a story as to how Era Bell Thompson came to be buried in the family plot at Driscoll Township Cemetery. She died in 1986 at her apartment on Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago. Her obituary in the Chicago Tribune, 31 December 1986, concluded, “Survivors include a cousin. Services were being arranged.” So although there was a memorial service attended by some two hundred friends, Thompson evidently had no family to claim her remains, which were cremated. And, according to her wishes, were sent to Driscoll for interment.

A few years ago I visited Driscoll and talked with the old butcher, Norm Meland, then still running the grocery store. Norm recounted that one day he received a telephone call from a local woman, friend to both him and Thompson, and the woman opened the conversation by saying, “I have Era Bell Thompson on my doorstep.” By which she meant, the ashes of the eminent journalist, in an express box.

Thompson’s gravestone bears the legend, “Ebony International Editor / N. D. Rough Rider Award.”

~Tom Isern

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