Author: Era Bell Thompson

Title: "American Daughter"

Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 1946; 301 pages

Era Bell Thompson was honored with the North Dakota Rough Rider Award in 1976. She wrote this delightful autobiography toward the end of World War II under a grant of a fellowship in Midwestern Studies from the Newberry Library. It was published in 1946 when she was 40 years old.

Era Bell was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1906. She moved with her father, Stewart C. Thompson, who this book she calls Tony, her mother Mary, and her older brothers to Driscoll.

“It was a strange and beautiful country my father had come to, so big and boundless he could look for miles and miles out over the golden prairies and follow the unbroken horizon where the midday blue met the bare peaks of distant hills. No tree or bush to break the view, miles and miles of prairie hay-lands, acre after acre of waving grain, and, up above, God and that fiery chariot which beat remorsely down upon the parching earth. … This was God’s country.”

They moved in 1915 when Era Bell was 9 years old, spending most of that first winter living with her uncle and aunt before they moved in the spring to a place of their own near Driscoll. The one definite date she mentions is 1916 when, in the fall of that year, her father Tony met Lynn Frazier as the Non Partisan League candidate for governor. He told Frazier, “Remember me, Governor, when you get to the capital. I’m Tony Thompson.”

He did and her father worked for the governor during the 1917 session of the Legislature.

Her description of the end of the legislative session in 1917, which she and her mother watched, is priceless.

“They set the clocks back so they could close at midnight, then proceeded to fight until dawn. Galleries were crowded, and people roamed the halls as if they were going to a circus. I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, but half the men down on the floor were angry and half were laughing — all were having the time of their lives. The farmers weren’t much on oratory, but they made up for it in vehemence and noisy gestures. Behind every profane word, somebody yelled, 'Strike that out!' Fist fights broke out in the corridors and on the floor. ‘He’s got a gun!’ somebody shouted into the milling crowd, and all bedlam broke loose. The police and the sergeant-at-arms had their hands full. It was wonderful.”

Thompson and her family were black, and they were one of the few black families in North Dakota. In 1916, they were invited for Christmas dinner at the home of a prosperous black family with another black family.

“Now there were fifteen of us, four percent of the state’s entire Negro population. Out there in the middle of nowhere, laughing and talking and thanking God for this new world of freedom and opportunity, there was a feeling of brotherhood, of race consciousness, and of family solidarity that I have never since felt. For the last time in my life, I was part of a whole family, and my family was a large part of a little colored world, and for a while no one else mattered.”

Thompson describes the racism she experienced growing up in North Dakota, and how she dealt with it and became accepted among her friends for herself and for her athletic ability, but she does not seem embittered by it. There were places where she was not welcome to live and the streetcar in Grand Forks passed her by, but she never seemed to let it bring her down. She graduated from Bismarck High School, attended the University of North Dakota and graduated from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. She struggled to make a living in Chicago while she developed her skill as a writer.

"American Daughter" as an autobiography is more like a story based on the life experiences of Era Bell Thompson. I found this description in the 2012 doctorate dissertation of Karenbeth G. Zacharias at the University of Kansas: “Thompson’s reflections of her life were not always straight forward, and she certainly edited her 1946 autobiography, yet the authenticity of her voice and experiences resonated throughout 'American Daughter.'”

It seems she may have changed the names of people involved to protect them from any racial retribution. For instance, she calls her three brothers Tom, Dick and Harry when their names are in fact William, Stewart and Carl. Though she does freely talk about the University of North Dakota, Driscoll, Bismarck and Mandan, she changed the name and location of Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, to the fictional names Dawn College in Lawrence, Iowa.

As an obvious token of her love for North Dakota, Thompson chose to be buried with her parents and two of her brothers in the Driscoll cemetery.

"American Daughter" is a wonderful read for those of us who love North Dakota as much as she did.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career includes serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.

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