Revisiting a North Dakota classic

This year marks the 75th anniversary of ‘American Daughter,’ UND alum Era Bell Thompson’s unique life-on-the-prairie autobiography

First published in 1946, ‘American Daughter’ is the autobiography of Era Bell Thompson, one of the University of North Dakota’s earliest African American alums. Shown is the cover of the book’s Minnesota Historical Society Press edition, which was published in 1986 and reprinted in 2004.

Editor’s note: Everyone knows the “Little House” books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiographical series about growing up on the prairie. Comparatively few know “American Daughter,” Era Bell Thompson’s now out-of-print autobiography, in which Thompson writes just as vividly about the horse-drawn plows, homemade buttermilk and house-shaking blizzards of her girlhood in smalltown North Dakota.

And that’s a shame, because “American Daughter” has an added dimension that makes it a standout among prairie memoirs: Era Bell Thompson, 1905-1986, was Black. So, Thompson’s own “little house” experiences (there are lots of parallels between her early years and Wilder’s) offer glimpses of not only North Dakota farm-and-town life in the early 1900s, but also what the state’s comparatively few Black families were experiencing during that time.

The Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award recognizes North Dakotans who have been influenced by the state in achieving national recognition, “thereby reflecting credit and honor upon North Dakota and its citizens,” the award’s website states. Vern Skaug painted this Rough Rider Award portrait of Era Bell Thompson, which is displayed in the North Dakota Capitol.

(“Now there were fifteen of us, four percent of the state’s entire Negro population,” Thompson wrote about one Christmas dinner, which was attended by her own and two other families. “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.”)

After graduating from Bismarck High, Thompson attended UND for two years. Among her other accomplishments, she set five state records in track and wrote a column for the Dakota Daily Student, as the campus paper was then called.

She finished her bachelor’s degree at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. Then, after spending the Depression working at various jobs in Chicago, she got her big break: a Newberry fellowship, awarded because the Newberry committee was fascinated by Thompson’s coming-of-age in North Dakota.

“American Daughter,” published 75 years ago in 1946, was the result. The book’s success helped Thompson win a spot at Ebony magazine, where she worked until she retired, becoming an internationally known editor in the process.

UND awarded Thompson an honorary doctorate in 1969. In 1981, she was inducted into the University’s Athletic Hall of Fame; and in 1976, she received the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider award, North Dakota’s highest honor.

But “American Daughter” was where her upward trajectory began. (“Usually an autobiography is written near the end of a long and distinguished career,” Bell later said with a smile. “But not taking any chances, I wrote mine first, then began to live.”)

And so, in the hope of interesting more readers in this timeless, powerful and beautifully written portrait of historic North Dakota and UND life, here are some excerpts from “American Daughter,” arranged in the order that they appear in the book.

“American Daughter” is available at local libraries, as well as from Amazon.com and other sellers of used books.

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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. … No tree or bush to break the view, miles and miles of grass, acre after acre of waving grain, and, up above, God and that fiery chariot which beat remorselessly down upon a parching earth. … This was God’s country. There was something in the vast stillness that spoke to Pop’s soul, and he loved it.

*******

Late that fall, Father sent (to Des Moines) for us. Harry and I were excited, for at last we were going to fight the Indians, and ride the range in search of buffalo – we hoped. … All through the last day, white and colored neighbors came with gifts of parting and words of sympathy; for them our destiny was an untimely death in the frozen wilds of Dakota.

Smiling through her tears, Mother packed our things, and at last we were on our way.

*******

Pop was beside himself with joy. He and Uncle John loaded us into the straw-covered bed of a big sled and covered us with horse blankets. … I could smell the clean, fresh odor of straw and feel the sideways jolt of the runners as they bumped into rocks underneath the snow. The steady, rhythmic beat of horses’ hooves sounded pleasantly beneath my uncle’s constant chatter.

*******

In the gray-white cold of early morning, with the temperature hovering around 35 below, Harry, Sue and I climbed into the big sled, John whipped up the horses, and we bounded off in a flurry of snow.

Driscoll was a typical small North Dakota town, population about 100. … A four-room consolidated school sat up on a hill, midway between the cemeteries and the town.

Sue herded us into the tiny entrance hall and up the three shallow steps to the first floor, where a short, red-haired woman gasped in disbelief. … (For) suddenly, without warning, here were two studies in brown. … (We) were the first Negro children she or the pupils had ever seen.

*******

In this circa-1920 photo, Era Bell Thompson wears a hat, dress and coat while standing outside of a Bismarck home. Image: State Historical Society of North Dakota

Every eye was upon us. One or two little girls snickered; a boy pushed another against me and grinned. … At noon the children gathered around the stove to eat lunch from their round syrup cans and their tin tobacco baskets. It was like a picnic back in Iowa. … I choked a little when I thought of Iowa, and ate my half-frozen sandwiches in silence.

One of Sue’s friends put her arm around me and felt of my hair. Tillie stared at the white palms of my hands, and I closed my fists tight until they hurt. For the first time I began to wonder about that and about the soles of my feet and my pink toes, and I was glad she couldn’t see my feet where the color ran out. Long before four o’clock I had had enough school.

*******

Having no produce to sell, we were without the small cash income which tides the dirt farmer over the lean summer months, and our borrowed funds again gave out, our food and credit with it. … (Mother) scraped the bottom of the flour bin to make the thin milk gravy for the boiled potatoes. We had no more bread, and no meat. … At breakfast we had tried the porridge made from flax seed, but it was a sorry mess. …

‘Listen, children. Eat your dinner. It’s all we have. It’s the last of the flour and lard, sugar’s gone, too. Maybe we can have some mustard greens tonight, maybe I can find some not too strong,’ said Mother hopefully. …

‘And in the meantime, we go hungry!’ Tom was bitter now.

Pop stood up, his plate untouched. Defeat was written in the lines of his face. …

‘Hello there!’ a voice boomed out. ‘I’m Carl Brendel, your neighbor – don’t git up. I yust stop by to see how you git along.’

Pop went over to the buggy and shook his hand. He recognized him now; it was Big Carl, the German widower who lived in the tiny speck of a farm far to the northeast. ‘This is a surprise, neighbor. Won’t you have some dinner?’ Father was embarrassed. …

Carl Brendel tried not to look at the bare table. ‘Nein,’ he said. ‘I yust et. … On my vay to town, thought maybe I bring you somet’ings.’ …

That evening, Brendel returned. He was lifting the sacks out of his buggy when Pop came up from the barn. ‘I bring you some t’ings I t’ink you need,’ he explained, resting a hundred-pound sack of flour against the house, beside the big sack of sugar.

‘God bless you!’ said Pop, tears running down his face. … Mother clutched my father’s arm; she could not speak. … There were canned goods, meat and lard. …

Pop moved then; he grabbed Brendel’s arm. ‘Mister, I’ve got no money; I can’t pay you now. God knows we need this food. …’

‘Nein, nein! I no vant money. Ven you git it you pay me if you vant. I got money, I your neighbor, I help you. Dot is all.’

He whipped his horses and drove away. Far down the road he looked back. The man and woman were still there in the yard where he had left them, but they were kneeling now, praying and thanking their God.

*******

There is an art in shocking grain, just as there is an art in cooking or catching rivets or shooting a basketball through the net. Tom and Gus walked along tossing the bundles together, setting them up like tenpins, with quick, precise strokes, while the rest of us staggered awkwardly under our burdens, unable to make the shocks stand still. But, for all the sweat and strain, we loved it. There was something clean and sweet about the harvest, something Biblical about the reaper and the golden sheaves of grain.

*******

Born into slavery in 1856, Tony Thompson (right) moved his family in 1914 to North Dakota, where he thought his children, including Era Bell (left), would have a better chance at getting an education and having a good future. Image: State Historical Society of North Dakota

It snowed for three days, snowed until the world was white and even, then the weather grew bitterly cold, the mercury dropping to 30 below, 35 during the nights.

Our windows were frozen over solidly, casting a white, cold glare over the taut house; snow seeped in through the cracks around the windows and under the frosted threshold, forming little white rows. The wind whistled along the floor, and the thin house creaked with the cold.

There was snow on the boys’ bed upstairs, and a thin coat of ice covered the north wall of the living room, behind the couch where I slept with Mom and Pop. True to his promise, Pop kept the belly of the stove red with fire, and the long length of pipe that ran through the ceiling to the attic room was also red from the prodded coals; yet, as our faces stung from its heat, our backs were cold. We could see our breath beside the stove. …

Water froze in the water bucket on the kitchen table, and canned fruit froze and burst in the cupboard nearby. We slept in long, fleece-lined underwear and in our heavy stockings, the beds piled high with coats and sweaters.

Bathing was a precarious business – a choice between cleanliness and pneumonia. … We built fires in the venthole to thaw out the pump and chopped openings in the ice-caked trough so the stock could drink. On the long drives home from school, our feet sought the heated bricks in the bottom of the rig, and, with heavy blankets wrapped tightly around our legs, we talked through frozen breath above the singing runners and ate frozen sandwiches left over from lunch. The kitchen stove held more feet that winter than it did fuel.

*******

We were two days getting to Fargo (from Bismarck, for a high-school track meet). It rained, bogging down the dirt road and the bus with it. … We made Valley City about two the next afternoon, stopping only long enough to eat. … When we walked in, the men at the counter stopped eating, and the one waitress looked at me and blinked. …

The waitress took all the orders at our table but mine and started away. Miss Wallace called her back. ‘I believe you forgot her order.’

‘Oh,’ said the girl innocently, ‘does she want something, too?’ …

It was still raining when we pulled into Fargo late at night, a weary, woebegone, mud-smeared group, not a school yell left in us.

*******

It was raining hard when the train stopped in Grand Forks. For awhile I was lost in the mob of hilarious students who jammed the platform of the tiny depot. … Across the street hung the dripping blue sign of the Young Women’s Christian Association. Picking up my bag, I walked over to the building and stepped inside. The woman at the desk looked startled.

‘Could I get …’

‘We’re all filled up. I’m sorry!’ she said. They probably were filled up, but I don’t think she was sorry. …

Early Monday morning, I was across the tracks and over to University Avenue, waiting for the streetcar. A funny little humpty-dumpty thing rocked down the tracks. As I stood at the rear, the front opened, closed, and the car was gone. Both sides of the broad street were filled with students hurrying towards the university. Another trolley approached, and I ran to the front. The back opened, and again I was left in the street. …

I began walking up the long street, the crisp, clean breeze in my face, above me the blue skies of North Dakota.

*******

(At UND), my interest in writing met with unexpected encouragement and a few setbacks. Mr. Lewis read my first theme, a short autobiography, to the class. When he finished, he said, “Well, Miss Thompson, there isn’t much of yourself; there are many misspelled words; but the general impression is so good that I can’t help it. ‘A!'”

My next theme was a little more daring, less conventional, for here in college they took the broad view, they let you out on your own. …

I followed that theme into Mr. Lewis’ office. …

The little blond mustache didn’t move, the gray eyes didn’t twinkle. “You write well, I guess you know; you spell abominably, and I guess you know that, too.” He was cold, cutting, precise. “It’s about time, Miss Thompson, that you remember to forget you’re clever and get down to the brass tacks of learning to put your cleverness into civilized art.”

Still unabashed, I wrote a poem for the Student and dropped it in the wall box in Old Main. It was printed. … I wrote jokes and more poems, and the editor said, “Come again, we like you.” I came so often that they made me humor editor, mistaking my misspelling and poor rhetoric for humor.

*******

The parsonage (where I lived in Grand Forks) was an old house and big, set well back on a spacious lawn in a quiet, tree-covered section of Grand Forks that I had never seen. … (When the family was finished with dinner), Dr. Riley pushed back his chair and stood up. “Come into the library, Era Bell. I want to have a word with you.” I followed him into the big, friendly room at the rear of the house.

“The good ladies of the Guild here have decided – after a little persuasion – to adopt you as their experiment in Christian living. Working on the theory that charity begins nearer home, they aren’t going over to Africa or India for their heathen this year; they are going to start right here in Grand Forks – and sister, you’re it.”

He grinned over his glasses. “They are going to give you a hundred-dollar scholarship to cover tuition and books. If there is any deficit, Susan and I will make it up. Your expenses shouldn’t be very much. You’ll find pencils, paper and ink in my office, and be sure to make use of these books. Feel free to use the typewriter. … Now get your bill (from the University), and I’ll take it when I go out this afternoon.”

*******

“What white ladies are mothering you?” asked Muriel.

“The Guild. Have you figured it out yet – why he (Dr. Riley) is doing it, I mean?”

“No, but it isn’t a gag, and it isn’t easy. He’s already lost some of his friends and a lot of his congregation. He never told me – he wouldn’t – but somebody that belongs to his church told us that when the (Black) Second Avenue kids sang over there Sunday, some of his members got up and walked out. For good!”

“It takes a big man, Muriel.”

“Plenty big, so the least we can do is go out there to that university and get down under the books. We’ve got to show those people we’re worth fighting for.”

*******

At school I delved into Bible philosophy, and in it found a new respect for the Old World and a modern God, one without a chariot, without slippers of gold. In geology, the rocks Pop and the boys despised became my friends, and in them I read the ancient language of the fossils. …

New worlds these, unfolding before me, worlds like caverns, so vast that each was a lifetime, and I must live again and again to explore each cavern, to travel each separate vista.

*******

Closing note: In the 1970s and 1980s, Era Bell Thompson, then living in Chicago, returned now and then to North Dakota. “You can go all day long without saying anything,” she once said about the state.

“Even if you have somebody with you, you don’t talk a lot, but you think a lot. My brothers didn’t like it. I got there just in time – or at just the right age – to love it.

“I would go back there now and live there if it weren’t for the winters,” she concluded.

“It’s just like going home.”