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N.D. woman determined to succeed

The granddaughter of a former slave grew up to become "one of the most renowned woman athletes in North Dakota history." She also became the editor of Ebony, a popular magazine.

The granddaughter of a former slave grew up to become "one of the most renowned woman athletes in North Dakota history." She also became the editor of Ebony, a popular magazine.

Era Bell Thompson was born Aug. 10, 1905, in Des Moines, Iowa, to Stewart "Tony" Thompson and Mary Logan Thompson.

James Garrison, a half brother of Tony Thompson, was a homesteader near Driscoll, N.D., and urged his relatives to move there because of its opportunities.

In 1914, Tony accepted the invitation and moved with his wife, three sons and Era Bell to this small community in south-central North Dakota. Initially, the Thompson family lived and worked on Garrison's farm.

Era Bell was excited about living in North Dakota - she had visions of cowboys and Indians. However, as a 9-year-old, she had no idea of the prejudice she would experience in her new home.


Era Bell and her brothers were the first blacks to attend the country schools in the Driscoll area. In her autobiography, "American Daughter," published in 1946, Era Bell wrote about the kindness shown by many of the people living in and around Driscoll. However, her skin color always made her the subject of curiosity and, oftentimes, prejudices.

In 1917, Tony moved to Bismarck to serve as private messenger to Gov. Lynn Frazier. The Thompsons became good friends with the Frazier family, and Era Bell went to school with Unie and Versie, the Frazier twins. In 1918, her mother, Mary, died from a stroke, and Era Bell began feeling more isolated.

Era Bell was a good student, but prejudice in education did not make going to school easy. Many textbooks at the time postulated that blacks were racially inferior. She also experienced discrimination in restaurants, theaters and other public facilities. The isolation Era Bell felt was somewhat abated because she excelled in athletics (track and basketball) and journalism while attending Bismarck High School.

When she graduated from Bismarck High in 1924, Era Bell had hoped to attend college but was short of the needed money. But by 1925, she had saved enough to enroll at the University of North Dakota. While attending classes, she also worked part time to pay for her room and board.

Era Bell took part in athletics and excelled in track and field. She set the school's women's track records in the hurdles, dashes and broad jump. She tied two national intercollegiate women's track records in the broad jump and the 60-yard dash.

In April 1927, Era Bell came down with pleurisy and was forced to drop out of classes. She returned to Bismarck-Mandan to be with her father, who had become ill. When he died the following year, Era Bell ended up running a furniture store that her father had purchased in Mandan. After paying off her father's debts, she closed the store and went back to work for her uncle, James Garrison, who operated a secondhand store in Bismarck.

After saving enough money, Era Bell returned to Grand Forks to resume classes at UND. However, the Ku Klux Klan was now active in the Grand Forks community, and people were concerned for her safety.

While in Grand Forks, she became a friend of the Rev. Robert O'Brian, pastor of the First Methodist Church. O'Brian informed Era Bell that he was accepting the position as president of Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and that she would be able to resume her education there. In 1933, she received a bachelor's degree in social science with a major in journalism.


Era Bell moved to Chicago shortly after graduation, hoping to embark on a new professional career. Life was much more difficult now because America was deep into the Great Depression, and she worked as a housekeeper to make ends meet.

In 1942, Era Bell got a job as an interviewer for the Illinois and U.S. Employment Service. Her big break came in 1946 with the publication of her highly acclaimed autobiography "American Daughter."

The following year, Era Bell was offered the position of associate editor of Ebony magazine, the largest-selling weekly magazine that focused on black America. In 1951, she became co-managing editor of Ebony. In 1954, she wrote her second book, "Africa, Land of My Father." Era Bell became international editor of Johnson Publishing Co. in 1964, a position she held for over a dozen years.

Era Bell received a number of awards and honors during her life, including an honorary doctorate of humane letters from UND in 1969, the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award in 1976, and an induction into the UND Athletic Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1979, the Black Cultural Center at UND was renamed the Era Bell Thompson Cultural Center. Thompson died Dec. 30, 1986, in her home in Chicago.

Written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen. Readers can reach the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net

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