Era Bell Thompson
(1906–1986), editor, journalist, and autobiographer.
Born 10 August 1906 in Des Moines, Iowa, Era Bell Thompson grew up in Driscoll, North Dakota, on her family's farm. Her contact with African Americans limited by regional population composition, she became fully aware of African American life, culture, and problems only after reaching adulthood.
Thompson attended North Dakota State University in Grand Forks, where she wrote for the university paper. Ill, Thompson left the university, and after recovering went to Chicago, working at a magazine, proofreading, writing advertising copy, and reviewing African Americans' books-exposing herself to the artistic outpourings of African Americans for the first time. She was particularly moved by W. E. B. Du Bois's The Dark Princess (1928), which exalted “Negroes” and “blackness.” Thompson later moved to Minneapolis, where she wrote features, advertising copy, and straight news for the Bugle, a weekly.
Encouraged and subsidized by Dr. Riley, a white minister interested in educating African Americans, Thompson returned to North Dakota State and received her degree in 1933 from Dawn College in Iowa, where she had followed Dr. Riley, who had been elected college president, and his family.
Returning to Chicago, Thompson continued her studies in journalism at Northwestern University and worked as a senior typist at the Department of Public Works, where she produced the humorous newspaper Giggle Sheet. Thompson later worked for the Illinois and United States Employment Services, where she deplored interracial, class, gender, and religious prejudice, recognizing the fundamental similarities Americans shared and looking toward a time when the “chasm” would disappear.
Thompson obtained a fellowship from the New-berry Library and published her autobiography, American Daughter (1946), a humorous recollection of her past for which she received the Patron Saint's Award (1968). Launched in her literary career, Thompson worked for the Negro Digest as an editor (1947) and for Ebony as associate editor (1947–1951), co–managing editor (1951–1964), and international editor (1964–1986).
In 1954, Thompson published Africa: Land of My Fathers, recounting her attempt to comprehend and reconnect with the land of her “forefathers.” In 1963 she coedited White on Black, a collection of articles written by whites reflecting their views of African Americans. Thompson's articles can be found in Phylon, “Negro Publications and the Writer” (1950), Negro Digest, “Girl Gangs of Harlem” (1951), and Ebony. These include; “Love Comes to Mahalia” (1964); “Instant Hair” (1965); “What Weaker Sex?” (1966), which denounces men's treatment of women, reflecting her feminist leanings; and “The Vaughan Family: A Tale of Two Continents” (1975), which recounts the maintenance of contact between African and American descendants of a former slave for over a century.
Thompson received honorary doctorates from Morningside College (1965) and the University of North Dakota (1969), was inducted into the North Dakota Hall of Fame, and received the State's Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award (1976).
Thompson died 29 December 1986. Her literary career reflects her quest to understand her people and their heritage as well as to encourage an understanding and cooperation between all Americans as human beings.
Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph, Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Black Women Writers, 1900–1945, 1990, pp. 321–352.