Making Modernism

Letters from Era Bell Thompson to Stanley Pargellis, 1944, 1953

By the time that Era Bell Thompson wrote to Stanley Pargellis, Newberry Librarian from 1942-65, to apply for a Fellowship in Midwestern Studies in 1944, she had already been living in Chicago for over a decade.  Daughter of North Dakota—“the Country God Forgot”—Thompson left the Great Plains of her youth for Chicago in 1933.  After the success of her autobiography, American Daughter (1946), Thompson began working for publishing tycoon John H. Johnson, and, by 1951, had become co-managing editor of Ebony—a position she held until 1964 when she became the magazine’s international editor.  Although relatively unknown when she received the Newberry Fellowship in 1945 to write American Daughter, Thompson clearly won the respect and admiration of Pargellis—qualities that, as these letters show, defined their professional and personal relationship.

“I too, have a story to tell,” Thompson writes Pargellis in 1944.  Promising “humorous incidents” involving blizzards, coyotes, and “frozen jelley sandwiches,” she pitches her autobiography as a “rollicking” adventure story.  After all, she concludes, “It has been a lot of fun, this business of being colored.”  Yet Thompson also conveys the isolation from African-American culture that defined her childhood:  “I couldn’t dance, couldn’t even snap my fingers or sing the blues.  I was 22 before I ever heard of Paul Lawrence Dunbar,” she laments.  Compare Thompson’s conflicted emotions about racial identity here to those expressed in another letter to Pargellis and his wife in 1953.  Writing from Uganda for Ebony, Thompson offers her “good Chicago friends” an update on their “re-activated African traveler,” and fondly references their social life in Chicago.  Although Thompson would use this trip and others like it as inspiration for her 1954 book, Africa:  Land of My Fathers, she again expresses feelings of racial alienation:  “Most of the time I am classified as a ‘European,’ the rest of the time they don’t know what to do with me.  The natives are just as puzzled!  Many of them never heard of America, let alone Negroes—or Ebony.” 

Thompson’s letters attest to the sincerity and longevity of her friendship with Pargellis well beyond her Newberry Fellowship application, and evidence the Library’s support for writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance.  Yet, as the letters also show, even as many African Americans forged an intellectual, literary, and artistic community on the city’s South Side, race remained an especially difficult terrain to navigate in the middle part of the twentieth century.

Mary I. Unger, Ripon College

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