Thompson, Era Bell (1906–1986)
Thompson, Era Bell (1906–1986)
African-American journalist. Born on August 10, 1906, in Des Moines, Iowa; died on December 29, 1986, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Steward C. Thompson (a farmer and laborer) and Mary (Logan) Thompson; attended North Dakota State University; graduated from Morningside College, 1933; attended Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.
Contributed articles to the Chicago Defender; won the Newbery fellowship (1945); published an autobiography, American Daughter (University of Chicago Press, 1946); won the Bread Loaf Writer's fellowship (1949); was managing editor of Negro Digest (1947–51); was managing editor, then promoted to international editor, Ebony (1951–86); given National Press Club citation (1961); named Outstanding Woman of the Year, Iota Phi Lambda (1965); granted honorary degrees from Morningside College (1965) and University of North Dakota (1969); inducted into the Iowa Hall of Fame (1978); member of Hull House, Urban League, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, and the Chicago Press Club.
A long-time editor for Ebony magazine, African-American writer Era Bell Thompson was born in 1906 and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, and Driscoll, North Dakota. Although her parents had little money and four children to support, Thompson entered North Dakota State University after graduating from a public high school in Driscoll. In college, she became a competitive athlete, a member of the track and basketball teams as well as an acrobat who dreamed of becoming a professional contortionist. During her junior year, she left North Dakota State University for Morningside College in Iowa. At Morningside, her teachers recognized her literary talent, but it took Thompson some time to decide to pursue a career in journalism.
She began to write for the Chicago Defender, first publishing articles in her own name, then, after causing some controversy for her political stands, publishing as the western cowboy "Dakota Dick." She graduated from Morningside in 1933 and studied for a time at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She then moved to Chicago hoping to find a job as a writer, but the impact of the Depression made work for African-American women writers impossible to find. She supported herself during these difficult years through a variety of skilled administrative jobs with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other government agencies, as well as with unskilled manual jobs, including work as a waitress and elevator operator.
Thompson was working for the Illinois State Employment Services in 1945 when she applied for and was awarded a Newbery writing fellowship. She used the money to write an autobiography, although she was only 41 years old. The book, published in 1946 as American Daughter, brought Thompson considerable critical acclaim, especially from members of the black literary community. One of those impressed by her work was John H. Johnson, publisher of the new journals Negro Digest and Ebony. He offered Thompson a job as managing editor of Negro Digest, a position she kept for four years before being named co-managing editor of Ebony, where she remained from 1951 to 1964. In 1954 her second book, Africa, Land of My Fathers, part travelogue and part history of African civilizations, was published. In 1964, Thompson was promoted to international editor of Ebony. She continued to work despite a diagnosis of breast cancer and a mastectomy while in her 60s.
Era Bell Thompson's work as a writer and editor for Ebony was recognized with numerous honors during her nearly 40-year career, including a National Press Club citation in 1949, honorary degrees from Morningside College (1965) and the University of North Dakota (1969), and induction into the Iowa Hall of Fame (1978). Radcliffe College also honored Thompson by including her in its Black Women Oral History Project (1978).
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California