Honoring Black History: Era Bell Thompson, who found a way to overcome all odds stacked against her

Local News

KX News is Honoring Black History with a look at stories of those who are building businesses, paying it forward and advocating personal advancement.

Today we start by sharing the story of a woman who had all odds stacked against her but still found a way to overcome.

Editor’s Note: Some of the language used may be offensive.

Inside the state capital building lies the Rough Rider Award Gallery.

In it, you will see many names — including that of Era Bell Thompson, an international journalist.

She was presented the award in 1976 and still is the only African American to be honored with the award. But the recognition didn’t come easy.

“Her background is kind of interesting,” said Head of References for North Dakota State Archives, Sarah Walker.

Era Bell was born in August of 1905 in Des Moines, Iowa.

In 1914, her parents packed up her and her three older brothers’ things and moved farther west to Driscoll, North Dakota.

“I was about 12…if I can remember,” said Era Bell, in an archived interview from the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

She had the same thoughts of what North Dakota would be like, like many others: That it’s the wild west, and people thought that they would go and freeze to death there.

“I was anxious to come to North Dakota because I heard there were Indians here…you know, same ole story. And I wanted a pony and to see Indians,” said Era Bell.

In her autobiography, American Daughter, Era Bell talks about the move to the Peace Garden State.

She and her family were welcomed with heavy grey skies and even heavier snow. Not exactly what they expected, but she soon experienced another culture shock.

“There weren’t a lot of Black people in the state and so she was completely different from what people expected,” said Walker.

The Thompson’s were 1 of 2 Black families in the area. In a town filled with Germans and Norwegians, Era Bell had her share of curiosity. Not so much from herself, but others of her.

“They didn’t know anything about race or that sort of thing but they knew how to say n*****. But after they got over that, after– it was always this thing about finding out about color rubbing off and curiosity and people stopping right on the street, especially Mandan, and just stare at you because they didn’t know what you were,” Era Bell said.

After her mother’s death, the family moved to Bismarck.

Era Bell took interest in track at Bismarck High School, winning awards and setting records. She went off to college at the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks where she found a new passion.

“She gets involved with the journalism program and she joins the school newspaper,” said Kimberly porter, a history professor at UND.

Era Bell took a break from school to deal with the death of her father, but eventually earned her degree from Morningside College in Iowa.

She moved to Chicago in the midst of the Great Depression.

She was not only African American, but a woman as well — making it hard for her to find work as a journalist.

She eventually found work sharing stories of her youth and that landed her a Newberry Scholarship.

“It kind of elevates her to a new level, not only in the Black community as an author but also in the broader collection of authors in the United States,” said Porter.

She would go off to work for Ebony magazine and climb the ranks.

She held the position of international editor until her retirement — traveling to over 15 countries and doing what she knew how to do best: Writing a book about her ancestral heritage, multiple essays denouncing the treatment of women and finishing her autobiography.

“It’s also very important for young men and more important for young women of color to say, she did this. She’s a Newberry Award Winner. She worked for the nation’s premiere Black magazine. She didn’t let stuff hold her back and she achieved mightly and I can too,” said Porter.

Era Bell proved that no matter your past, no matter the different obstacles life throws at you, that you can still rise — rise to do and be whatever it is you put your mind to.

Era Bell’s legacy still lives on here in the state.

Even though she didn’t graduate from UND, in 1979 the Era Bell Thompson Multicultural Center was opened on the campus.

Now, the building is being rebuilt, but officials tell us when it is complete, it will serve the same purpose it was originally built for…bridging the gap and addressing the needs of students of color.

Era Bell passed away in 1986 in Chicago.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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