Era Bell Thompson
August 10, 1905 – December 30, 1986
Notable: Writer & Editor
Era Bell Thompson was born in Des Moines, Iowa the only girl and the last of her parents’ children. Her parents, Mary Logan and Stewart S. Thompson were the children of people who had been enslaved. When Thompson was around eight the family moved to Driscoll, North Dakota where her father had purchased a farm.
North Dakota did not (and still does not) have a large Black population. Thus Thompson’s family was one of the few Black families in town. Thompson would later recall people stopping to stare and classmates trying to touch her hair because she was the first or one of the first Black people they’d seen.
When Thompson was 12 years old, her mother died from a stroke. Up to that point the family had been financially unstable due to her father scraping by as a farmer. But with the death of her mother, the family’s struggles increased. The family moved again, this time to Mandan for about one year before settling in Bismark. There Thompson’s father supported the family by working various jobs which included owning a second-hand furniture store.
Thompson continued to have negative experiences with classmates due to being one of a few Black students. But this also extended to academics where textbooks and classroom discussions included negative and stereotypical portrayals of Black people. Yet Thompson persevered and completed high school while also achieving acclaim as a multisport athlete.
For college, Thompson enrolled at the University of North Dakota – Grand Forks where incidents of ignorance and prejudice continued. Thompson was turned away from housing at the YWCA and streetcar operators refused to stop for her. Needing to support herself, Thompson attempted to apply for multiple jobs only to be told that the positions were filled. Yet as in the past, Thompson persisted academically and continued her track career through which she broke and tied records. She had been writing since childhood and now contributed to the college’s newspaper. Thompson eventually found a job working for a local Jewish family.
After two years of college, Thompson was forced to drop out of school due to illness. Around that time her father died and she returned home to take control of the store to pay off his debts. Thompson befriended a pastor who would help her return to college though she eventually transferred to Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa from which she would earn a bachelor’s degree.
Seeking better opportunities, Thompson moved to Chicago in 1933. During her first visit, Thompson had been taken aback by the city’s scale and speed as well as the amount of Black people. Unfortunately, she once again faced racism and her arrival coincided with the start of the Great Depression. This made it difficult to find a job despite having a college degree.
Drawing on the example set by her father, Thompson found work as a housekeeper. She then began writing for the Chicago Defender and found other odd jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). During her time with the WPA, Thompson published a newsletter for the organization and took journalism classes at Northwestern University. Thompson would spend over a decade working odd jobs and temporary assignments to support herself.
In 1945, Thompson was awarded a Newberry Fellowship which allowed her to focus on writing her autobiography. Published in 1946, American Daughter was well received, especially within the Black community. The book helped her land a position at the Johnson Publishing Company in 1947 just two years after the company was launched.
Thompson started out as an associate editor of Negro Digest and worked her way up to international editor for Ebony. She would spend 40 years working for the company in some capacity. During her tenure, Thompson traveled the world to interview subjects and gain insights for articles. In 1953, she visited 18 African countries in preparation for her second book, Africa, Land of My Fathers.
Era Bell Thompson died on December 30, 1986. During her life, Thompson received multiple awards and honorary degrees.
- AP. 1987. “Era Bell Thompson, 80, Dies; Novelist and Editor at Ebony.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. January 3, 1987.https://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/03/obituaries/era-bell-thompson-80-dies-novelist-and-editor-at-ebony.html.
- Crimmins, Jerry. 1986. “Black Editor, Author Era Bell Thompson, 80.” Chicago Tribune. Digital First Media. December 31, 1986.https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1986-12-31-8604070769-story.html.
- “Era Bell Thompson (1905-1986).” 2023. MandanHistory.Org. Mandan Historical Society. October 10, 2023.http://www.mandanhistory.org/biographiessz/erabellthompson.html.
- “Era Bell Thompson Papers.” n.d. Chicago Public Library. Accessed October 31, 2023.https://www.chipublib.org/fa-era-bell-thompson-papers/.
- “Era Bell Thompson.” n.d. ChicagoLiteraryHoF.Org. Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Accessed October 31, 2023.https://chicagoliteraryhof.org/inductees/profile/era-bell-thompson.
- Helm, Matt. 2020. “Era Bell Thompson (1906-1986).” Blackpast.Org. July 24, 2020.https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/thompson-era-bell-1906-1986/.
- “Thompson, Era Bell (1906–1986).” 2023. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com. October 19, 2023.https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thompson-era-bell-1906-1986.
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