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November 1: Era Bell Thompson

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

Era Bell’s family moved to North Dakota in 1914 when she was nine. A few days after arriving, 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 hard for Era, 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 out of place.

Three years later when Era’s mother died, the family moved to Bismarck. Even in this larger town, there were only two black students, and again, a hush fell over the schoolyard when Era showed up. But Era soon distinguished herself as a gifted runner, and the track became one of the few places she fit in.

After high school, Era enrolled at UND, but the YWCA refused her a room, the streetcar would pass her by, and job positions were suddenly filled when she applied. Despite the prejudice, she did well and made friends. She also pursued her love of running, breaking five UND track records and tying two national records. She also began writing for the campus paper, showing substantial wit and talent.

When her dad died, Era returned to Mandan to run a store to pay off her father’s debts. A white pastor and his family took her in and helped her finish college. From there, she went to Chicago, but despite her degree, she found little opportunity for a job, so she wrote her life story: American Daughter.

That story caught the attention of Ebony’s management, and in 1946 she was hired as associate editor. She would become instrumental at Ebony serving in a variety of capacities for approximately forty years. Among those duties was foreign reporting. In 1953, she toured 18 countries in Africa, which led to her second book: Africa, Land of My Fathers.

In 1976 governor George Sinner honored Thompson with the North Dakota Roughrider Award. And in 2020, she was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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