This remarkable woman traveled to 124 countries and helped to establish Ebony magazine — all while overcoming racial stereotypes.
Era Bell Thompson was born in Des Moines on Aug. 10, 1905. Her family of nine moved to a homestead in Driscoll in 1914.
She was more optimistic than the rest of her family about the move.
“I was anxious to come to North Dakota because I heard there were Indians here and I wanted a pony,” said Era Bell.
At the time, being African American in North Dakota wasn’t the same as being Black in the rest of the U.S.
First- and second-generation immigrant parents who didn’t speak English well really wanted their children to play with her.
“Their mothers and fathers would like them to play with me because they thought I was good and wanted them to learn English,” she added.
However, after only four years of living in North Dakota, Era Bell’s mother, Mary Logan Thompson, died of a
stroke. Her death took a heavy toll on the family, emotionally and financially.
“Everybody was in debt; it’s one of those things you never get out of debt. It’s no disgrace to be poor or in debt, but some farmers were better off than others,” said Era Bell.
While in Bismarck, she attended Bismarck High School where she wrote for the newspaper, played basketball and ran track. She graduated in 1924. According to the U.S. Census, the year she graduated there were only 19 Black people in Bismarck.
“People would stop right on the street and stare at you, especially in Mandan because they didn’t know what you were,” said Era Bell.
After graduating high school, Era Bell attended the University of North Dakota where she would be presented with an honorary doctorate later on in her life. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, she was off to Chicago to look for work.
“That’s one of the things I wanted when I went to the city, to live some place where I just melted
in with other people and not stand out,” said Era Bell.
But she said even the transition from the Midwest to Chicago was tough.
“When I got to Chicago I was as much of an oddity among Black people as I was here. My accent was one, nobody had ever heard of North Dakota, they didn’t know any of the schools I attended, I was just an odd ball,” said Era Bell.
In 1946, she was awarded a Newberry Fellowship that led to the publication of her autobiography, American Daughter.
American Daughter landed Era Bell a job offer with Ebony magazine, a famous, Black-owned magazine when it was just two years old. There she served as editor.
Gary Gunderson, a North Dakota resident, stayed in contact with Era Bell throughout her life.
“There’s a lot of stuff written about Era Bell; you can find it in the archives but you don’t get much Era Bell herself,” said Gunderson.
The last time Era Bell came back to North Dakota was for Driscoll’s 100th year anniversary. Before her death in 1986, she was awarded North Dakota’s highest honor, The Rough Rider Award, in 1976.
She has been the only African American woman to ever receive this award.
“Well, there was a feeling of fellowship — Everybody in North Dakota had such a hard time fighting the elements, you didn’t have time to fight other people – hate people, they didn’t know much about the American way of prejudice,” said Era Bell.
Friends say her humorous personality was known and loved from North Dakota to Chicago and everywhere in between.
Era Bell was laid to rest at the Driscoll Township Graveyard with her mother, father, brothers and grandmother.