Reverend Carolyn Williams Bell’s smile was an unabashed, radiant display of wisdom. It was not the least bit intimidating. When she adorned you with it, accompanied with eyes that sparkled, you instinctively felt hers was wisdom touched by the ancients. At 12:50 p.m., Tuesday, September 11, 2018, Rev. Bell, age 73, joined the ancients and her smile is certain to add a new iridescence to Heaven.
Having had benefit of her mentorship, I have known Carolyn for many years and was very much aware that she was quite an accomplished, regal African-American woman. To be in her presence was a conspicuous blessing. Yet, she had such a great depth of spirit and record of achievement that no single person could be an adequate repository for all that she represented. That is, except her son Marcus “Bellringer” Bell.
Marcus Bell is himself quite accomplished. A world class music producer and writer who founded Bellringer Productions, his client list includes a host of Grammy winners and multi-platinum selling artists; contributing to projects produced by the likes of ABC, CBS, MTV, NBC, BET, Discovery, and many more.
Reflecting on his own stellar career, Bell said, “I’ve discovered for myself and through the life of my mother what it is to be someone that stands for other people’s greatness.” He added, “She lived her life in service of family, community, and the lives of all people, and in particular the lives of African-Americans.”
Recently, Bell found himself pouring over numerous articles written about his mother. It was an experience at once inspiring and a testament to his mother’s penchant for service to the community. He noted, “What has been most moving is not all of the accolades. They are only by-products of a mission that Carolyn Bell embodied. That mission seems to have been: use your influence, knowledge, and wisdom to help others.”
The late Reverend’s brother LaMar Williams concurs. He said, “The effect that Carolyn had on people was amazing! Sensitivity and caring was who she was.” He had always referred to her as “Little Sis,” but is himself amazed to now hear so many people affectionately referring to his sister as “Ma Bell,” “Mom Bell,” “Sister” or simply just as “Mother.”
Williams also reflected on his sister’s many accomplishments. “Anything was possible to Carolyn and she never complained. Hard work, research and intellectual curiosity was her enjoyment.”
Someone who saw that hard work first-hand was Rev. Bell’s sister-in-law Maggi Curry Williams, a professional colleague and dear friend of more than 41 years. They both worked at Old
Dominion University, where amongst many positions, Rev. Bell served as Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Director of Community Relations.
Curry Williams said, “It was both a pleasure and a challenge to work with her because she tirelessly and aggressively pushed the boundaries for social justice.” She added, “She gave 100+% percent toward any project she undertook, especially sharing her abiding love for people through her creative gifts of speaking, writing, publishing, advising, mentoring and ministering to the needs of people from all walks of life.”
Contemplating on Rev. Bell’s spiritual walk, Curry Williams added, she was “a remarkable servant” whose seemingly exhaustible energy was “fueled by God.” She concluded, “Her contributions to the world will live on through the countless people she touched.”
One person that Rev. Bell touched was Ann Fields. Fields met the Reverend just a few months after she was released from serving a 7 year stint at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail. They met at Grove Baptist Church, Portsmouth. Fields noted that, “When you come home from prison, people think you have a chip on your shoulder.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, she confessed, “And I did.” She recalled, “We used to fuss all of the time, but like mother-daughter fussing.” Fields referred to Rev. Bell as her “spiritual mother,” adding, “She never gave up on me. She said, ‘Don’t ever let your past dictate your future.’”
Like many mentees before her, Fields paid attention. She has successfully escaped the revolving door of recidivism these last 12 years, has been married for 10 years, and owns a home.
But lest you think the above platitudes are mere emotional sentiments expressed by those who dearly loved Rev. Bell. Following is just a quick glance at what distinguished her as an exceptionally accomplished professional, clearly motivated by community service.
Having earned a Bachelor of Social Work and Sociology at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, Rev. Bell received a Master of Science in Educational Guidance at Virginia State University and a Master of Divinity from Virginia Union University. She is an ordained minister and a former associate pastor at Canaan Baptist Church, Suffolk, VA.
She founded and served as the first president of the former Park Place Redevelopment Foundation. Under her leadership, the Foundation secured $60,000 in funding from the Ford Foundation to initiate construction in that community. Over the years, the Foundation would renovate or construct 37 houses in Park Place.
She also led the charge in securing more than $2 million to renovate or construct housing in the Brambleton community. Additionally, as Associate Vice-President for Advancement and the Director of Community Relations, Norfolk State University, she administered a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funded program that provided low-income housing communities with mentoring programs and community empowerment projects. Rev. Bell had also served as a Case Manager for the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
She was also a published author. She wrote “That’s Pretty,” a biography of the late Rev. A. R. Walker, a former Buffalo Soldier and who, at publication, was recognized as Virginia’s oldest active pastor. “Bellringer Branding Bible,” co-authored with son Marcus, became an Amazon “# 1 Best Seller.” She also published the “Spiritual Times” newspaper, distributed to over local 100 churches, highlighting news for the faithful.
Having a great disdain for social injustice, especially as experienced by people with roots in the African diaspora, Rev. Bell’s passion for community activism was spawned very early in life. Though she was arrested for a sit-in while a student in Wilberforce Ohio, she also participated at a Woolworth’s sit-in while still a high school student at Portsmouth’s I.C. Norcom.
Yet, it was quite a novel brand of activism that earned her an array of early plaudits. It was as a pioneer in the game of tennis. As son Marcus observed, “It is clear to me that tennis was her first vehicle for activism. She had a natural ability with tennis and in a short period of time became a national tennis champion.”
In 1961, at age 16, Carolyn Williams became the first female to win the Women’s Singles title, Women’s Doubles title, and the girls16-18 Junior Singles title at the 45th Annual American Tennis Association (ATA) Nationals, staged at then Hampton Institute. It was the same event that a young Arthur Ashe Jr. won the Men’s Singles title (see www.Blacktennishistory.com/Black-tennis-history-timeline-1961-1975/). While a Norcom student, she won many district and state tennis titles, including 3 consecutive ATA National Interscholastic Tennis Tournament Championship and 3 consecutive Virginia Interscholastic
Association State Singles Championships. In 1961, she was elected as the Olympian Sports Club “Athlete of the Year.” She also shared many state doubles titles with her brother Lamar.
During the turbulent 60s, Carolyn traveled throughout the country competing in tennis tournaments, often the only African-American shattering color barriers. At the time, she was the first African-American to win any title in the 71-year history of the Ohio Tennis Classic. Flashing that same radiant smile, her son Marcus observed, “Her racket was her activism when she was in her youth.”
Sometimes, you encounter people in your life that, when you look back over your acquaintance, it is like basking in a distinctive light. If you knew Rev. Carolyn Williams Bell and she flashed that radiant smile on you, eyes twinkling like they were coming from another place and time, you’ll be quite familiar with the experience. When some people transition, you know that theirs was a spirit so rich in life, that it is destined to linger in your own spirit. And you’re thankful for it, because you know that they’ll ever be smiling upon you.
No one will be basking in his mother’s smile, light and commitment to service like Marcus “Bellringer” Bell. He sums it up thusly, “I’m honored to be left with the torch of her legacy.”
The viewing for Reverend Carolyn Williams Bell will be at J. T. Fisher Funeral Home, 1248 George Washington Highway North, Chesapeake, VA 23323, on Thursday, September 20, 2018, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The homegoing service will be conducted at Grove Baptist Church, 5910 West Norfolk Road, Portsmouth, VA 23703, on Friday, September 21, 2018, at 11 a.m. The doors of the church will open at 10 a.m.
By Terrance Afer-Anderson
New Journal and Guide