Title: Era Bell Thompson
Collection Number: MSS 11118
Quantity: 1 foot
Abstract: Correspondence, printed material, photographs and newspaper clippings of pioneering editor of Ebony magazine and North Dakota native.
Provenance: The collection was compiled from various donations to the State Historical Society of North Dakota by the Liessman and Vantine families. The collection was processed and this inventory created by Emily E. Schultz in February 2012.
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MSS 10157 North Dakota Oral History Collection - interview with Era Bell Thompson and Helen J. Downing 1111A & B
An “American Daughter” had gone home. Era Bell Thompson, a pioneer editor of Ebony who started with the magazine in its second year, was buried, according to her wishes, in the family plot in Driscoll, ND. Ms. Thompson died December 29 in her home in Chicago after 80 years of a life that greatly exceeded her fondest dreams.
The author of the book, American Daughter, (University of Chicago Press, 1946) about growing up in North Dakota, Ms. Thompson once said, “Usually an autobiography is written near the end of a long and distinguished career, but, not taking any chances, I wrote mine first, then began to live.”
And live she did!
The book brought her to the attention of John H. Johnson, the young and enterprising publisher of two new national magazines – Negro Digest and Ebony. He was searching for Blacks who could write and in Ms. Thompson he felt that he had found a jewel. The problem was that Ms. Thompson was working for the Illinois state Employment Service, the best job she had been able to find since coming to Depression-ridden Chicago in 1933 with a degree in journalism from Morningside College in Sioux City, IA. Johnson made a personal visit to her tiny apartment under the “El” tracks at 63rd and South Park and persuaded her to become an editor.
Life before Johnson Publishing Co. had not been exactly dull for Ms. Thompson. Born on August 10, 1906, in Des Moines, IA, she was the only girl in a family of six – her mother and father and three brothers. Her father had been a waiter, cook and coal miner before moving the family to North Dakota where he became a farmer, operator of a second-hand store and a messenger at the State Capitol building. As a child Ms. Thompson survived the bitter winters of the Dakota prairies, the early death of her mother and the family teasing of her brothers. Tiny and tough (she was only 4’8”), she became a track star when she enrolled at North Dakota State University in Grand Forks [University of North Dakota], setting records in telegraphic meets against major colleges. In her second year at UND she was taken in by the family of the Rev/ Edward O’Brian and became so much a part of the family that when Rev. O’Brian was named president of Morningside College the next year, Ms. Thompson went along as a part of the family to finish her college training.
She left her ISES job in 1947 to edit Negro Digest and Ebony and her rise was rapid. She became co-managing editor in 1951 and opted to become international editor in 1964. She was international editor until her death.
One of the most prominent Black women journalists in the nation, Ms. Thompson found no story too difficult nor any land too dangerous as she covered stories throughout Africa, South and Central America, Europe and Asia. Her study of amalgamation of the races in Brazil was one of the best stories ever done on the “race problem” in the country which was not supposed to have one, and she was one of the first to look into the problems of “brown babies” – the offspring of Black soldiers in Europe and Asia. In 1954, she published her second book, Africa, Land of My Fathers (Doubleday).
An advocate of women’s lib long before it became popular, Ms. Thompson did not accept the terms “women’s stories” and “men’s stories.” She did them all. She was awarded a citation by the Capital Press Club in 1961, honorary degrees by Morningside and the UND and she was selected by Radcliffe as one of 50 Women of Courage to be recorded and photographed for an oral history study.
At a memorial service (she requested no funeral) in Chicago’s Sixth Grace Presbyterian Church attended by some 200 close friends and relatives, on Jan. 8, Ms. Thompson was lauded by her friend and employer, Publisher John H. Johnson, and eulogized by Dr. A. L. Reynolds, pastor emeritus of the church. Included among the floral tributes were those from the (Carter G. Woodson Library, the repository of her papers) and from North Dakota Governor George A. Sinner who earlier named her a Ranger [Roughrider], top honor given by the state.
Source: Ebony magazine, March 1987, p. 25
BOX / FOLDER INVENTORY
1 Correspondence to/from the Liessman and Vantine families, 1947-1969
2 Correspondence to/from the Liessman and Vantine families, 1970-1986
3 Family material, 1981, 1986
4 Era Bell Thompson dinner, Bismarck, ND, August 31, 1966
5 UND honorary doctorate, February 2, 1969
6 Driscoll’s (ND) Era Bell Thompson Day, July 7-9, 1972
7 Era Bell Thompson’s death (cremation), 1987
8 Tribute to Era Bell Thompson, January 26, 1987
9 Printed material, 1969-1987
10 Newspaper and published articles, 1917-1987
11 Photographs and negatives, 1954-1986
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