Interview of Raymond Bell. Interviewed by George Gilliam, Mason Mills, of The Ground Beneath Our Feet project.

Raymond Bell served as the president of the Charlottesville Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. and worked actively on local efforts at desegregation and civil rights in Charlottesville.

This interview was taken in 2000 for "Massive Resistance," episode four of "The Ground Beneath Our Feet: Virginia's History Since the Civil War," a production of George H. Gilliam and the Central Virginia Educational Television Corporation. George H. Gilliam is the Producer of the series, William G. Thomas, III the Assistant Producer, and Mason Mills the Director of Photography.

The transcripts represent what was said in the interview to the best of our ability. It is possible that some words, particularly names, have been misspelled. We have made no attempt to correct mistakes in grammar.

Mr. Gilliam: Raymond, you are Raymond L. Bell.
Mr. Bell: No. I'm Raymond Lee Bell.
Mr. Gilliam: Raymond Lee Bell, L E E?
Mr. Bell: Yeah, my mother was a Lee, so she named me along- I happen to be a twin. So, they took the outlaw of the family and I got his name. Raymond Lee, which is great.
Mr. Gilliam: Now, your father moved to Charlottesville in 1917?
Mr. Bell: Yeah, it's in 1917 from Petersburg Virginia.
Mr. Gilliam: And started the funeral business.
Mr. Bell: Mm Hm (indicates yes)
Mr. Gilliam: You went off to the service in what year?
Mr. Bell: Let's see, I was drafted in '44 as I recall. Yeah, '44 and at that time I was attending Hampton, it was called institute it's now called Hampton University. And I spent one year, there, one - two semesters and then I got drafted and I never went back.
Mr. Gilliam: You, you- Where did you finish your schooling?
Mr. Bell: Boston University.
Mr. Gilliam: And when did you finish at Boston University?
Mr. Bell: '81, I think it was.
Mr. Gilliam: '81?
Mr. Bell: Not '81.
Mr. Gilliam: '51?
Mr. Bell: Fif-Fifty- actually it was '52. Yeah.
Mr. Gilliam: And in '52 did you return to Charlottesville?
Mr. Bell: No, I went on to grad school at Boston University and it was at the end of that term that I found out that my dad had cancer, and my brother John and Henry, who were the other brothers, were working in the business. But John and Dad couldn't get along. They were too much alike, to tell you the truth, so he went to Cleveland and I came home. I just - got a leave of absence from the University because I was teaching, part time. And I got a leave off absence and I came home, just for about two months to stay - but dog bite it, the more I got into this business, and the more I saw what he was about to loose, in terms of real estate and a lot of other things, I decided to burn my bridges. 'Cause I couldn't get my brother back from Cleveland. Which, but I did eventually. After our Dad died he was able to come back. He came back and we made him president of the company. He was the oldest.
Mr. Gilliam: What year did you come back? What year did you settle in Charlottesville?
Mr. Bell: I settled in Charlottesville in 1953.
Mr. Gilliam: 1953 would have been a very interesting climate for a young black man, a professional, educated, to settle into business in Charlottesville, because things were starting to churn in the schools.
Mr. Bell: Yes.
Mr. Gilliam: Did you join any organizations that were interested in racial betterment?
Mr. Bell: I suppose the most in terms of getting something done, the best organization was, there was something called a Human Relations Council. It was integrated. I'm trying to remember some of the leadership. But it was mostly University people. There was a man named Mollyneaux, years ago. He was the chairperson. I think, I was not the token black on that board. There were some ministers. B.F. Bunn who was the pastor at First Baptist. He was on the board. And a couple of other people. Whoever was at Trinity Episcopal Church whoever the rector was was also on that? I don't remember. But it got a lot done. In those days we were talking about integration and housing. Bunn led a bunch of us from Church one Sunday over to Johnson Village and we were stopped. We just wanted to see the open house that was on exhibit. And from then on we got help, Francis Fife was active in that. He still is in housing and that's one of his passions. He was a member of that group. But there were so many things going. Of course the NAACP we hadn't done - we were trying to get that going and we did eventually. Eugene Williams and Charles Fowler and I got together and we organized a campaign to have an active branch. And it was very successful because we won an award for the greatest percentage of increase of any branch in the country. Now the idea was to not only get the members but to have everyone registered to vote. Because there was a void in voting on the part of the blacks during in that particular day and we realized too that that would bring on political power in terms of getting some things we wanted done and it worked very well.
Mr. Gilliam: When was the voting drive for the NAACP? I'm sorry, the registration and membership drive?
Mr. Bell: You know I don't remember. But it made national news in terms of the NAACP when we won the Ike Small award at the state convention and we start getting Roy Wilkins came in from New York to see what was going on. They asked Eugene and I to speak at the National convention that year that it was held in Cleveland. I don't remember the year but, we were doing some things here that they were going to duplicate in other places.
Mr. Gilliam: Now, Thurgood Marshall. Who was the chief counsel to the NAACP in the early 1950s the middle 1950s was leading the strategy for the school integration litigation and at one point as I understand it Charlottesville came to the attention of Thurgood Marshall. Could you tell me about Thurgood's, I should say Judge Marshall's involvement with you with the NAACP. Did he visit here and how was Charlottesville selected as a city?
Mr. Bell: Yeah, you know I've been asked that question many times. Thurgood didn't come to Charlottesville until after some of the lawsuits were filed. Because he, at that time, was head the Legal Defense Fund and that was housed in New York. But, when he came this way, or came south he would always stop and see Oliver Hill and Sam Tucker and the people who were leading the legal strategy or the legal struggle for school desegregation. He came in one time as I remember to speak at a state convention. And he spoke at Burleigh School and it was on radio, but by that time a lot of the gains in terms of desegregation was happening.
Mr. Gilliam: How did the decision to file a lawsuit to integrate the Charlottesville schools develop? What can you tell us about that?
Mr. Bell: Well, I got the impression and it was later verified by meetings and contacts I had with lawyers that they thought Charlottesville would be perhaps the most perceptive place to go because of the University of Virginia. The University was there. There was that Human Relations Council. The school system on the part of the black community was very good. Good teachers. Good kids going to any school. We had one to go to Harvard. Cornell was another one. And they were going to schools - University of Chicago, Princeton. Some of these kids were track stars. But it was a good climate. They thought that if it could happen here in Virginia, this would be the place to start.
Mr. Gilliam: Was Judge Marshall personally involved in approving Charlottesville as a target?
Mr. Bell: You know I don't know, but I would suspect that that group, it was not only - I'm trying to remember the Dean of the Law School at Howard - and he had a great influence. In fact, Thurgood Marshall was one of his students. But he had a grand view of what needed to be done in terms of legislation and what targets needed to be selected.
Mr. Gilliam: There came a time in the late 1950s when the Federal Court here in Charlottesville, Judge Kline, ordered the schools to integrate and the Massive Resistance laws required the governor to take control of the schools at that time and to close them. And Lane and Venable were closed in the fall of 1958. Could you describe what the atmosphere was in town and in the black community? What were people thinking? Did people think the schools were going to stay closed for a long time or did they think this was just a short-term hurdle that had to be -?
Massive Resistance
Mr. Bell: I think that the consensus among the black population was that we would win in time. But as this Massive Resistance and Stanley and Almond and all the rest of them were doing everything enacting state laws that had to be attacked. We wasted a lot of time with this Massive Resistance. Fitzgerald - what's his name? Fitzpatrick. In the News Leader or the Times Dispatch, he came up with this -
Mr. Gilliam: Kilpatrick. James J. Kilpatrick.
Mr. Bell: That's him. And we knew that the problem we had is it takes money. We were always raising funds. Because you had to pay for the appeals. But no one ever said anything about losing. We knew that it would end up in the Supreme Court and that was more or less understood by the lawyers that this was the place. I think 29 blacks applied for when Judge Paul ordered Venable and Lane - I think 29 black families applied and I don't remember how many got in. And the option was that, you know, if the state failed in the courts, they would close the schools. That's why in Charlottesville and that happened. And of course the black families, parents, got their own school going meeting in various churches and homes and elsewhere to try to keep the students involved and keep them learning what they needed to learn.
Mr. Gilliam: How many children in the black community were able to go to these church and neighborhood schools while the public schools were closed? Can you tell me what you remember about that?
Mr. Bell: It wasn't as good as we thought it would be. It was I would say less than 40%. But at the same time, there were white private schools being organized. There was some organization that was organized just to take care of the white children who they didn't want out of school. I don't - but that was only a temporary thing in terms of our impression of how long it was going to take.
Mr. Gilliam: In 1959, the Federal Court said that schools could reopen on a segregated basis - that public schools could reopen on a segregated basis because the Charlottesville School Board said we will come up with a plan for integration by the fall of 1959. And over the next several years, several plans came forward. And the common denominator of those plans was that the city was divided into zones, and all of the black children were in the Jefferson School zone. And the plan provided that if a child wanted to move from one zone to another what did the child have to do? Do you remember what the child had to do? If they wanted to move from one zone to another.
Mr. Bell: Well, I really don't remember the details of it; but I do remember that I was living in what was called Venable. I was living at 1012 Grady and I had two children school age. And they divided Venable - well 10th Street N.W. was the dividing line. They made up these divisions of divisions. And my kids - but there weren't that many blacks living in that area in terms of students - school age kids. But they would-my daughter and son went to Venable. In fact, all three of my kids went to Venable and did very well. And we had no opposition - at that time. But I don't know what happened in those other parts. Well, Jeff, was Burleigh open then?
Mr. Gilliam: Burleigh was open.
Mr. Bell: Burleigh was the joint high school with county and city. But I don't remember the details of that.
Mr. Gilliam: Apparently children were forced to take a test. Black kids had to take a test to demonstrate that they were academically qualified.
Mr. Bell: Oh yeah. Now you - yes. And the whites did not have to take the test. I remember -
Mr. Gilliam: Do you remember what a child had to do if the child wanted to transfer from one school zone to another school zone?
Mr. Bell: That's what the testing came into. They required black students to take the test and white were passed. They didn't have to do it.
Mr. Gilliam: On the basis of these tests, how many black kids were eligible to transfer?
Mr. Bell: I think - wasn't it under 9 or 10? It was very low when I looked it up some time ago. It wasn't as good as we had thought it would be.
Mr. Gilliam: During the 1960s, the black citizens of Charlottesville started to get more politically active. What was some of the steps? What were some of the progress you mentioned that you could start with the voter registration drive and then talk about what gains were made?
Mr. Bell: Yes. That's interesting because what we did to get people involved was to run - to get some black candidates with which we had never had before. And a dentist here named Dr. Bernard Coles was the first black to run for city council. However at the time, a white physician by the name of Frank Daniel, who was liberal, split the vote. And we lost out on Dr. Coles. But the next time around a man named George Hardy - H-a-r-d-y - Mr. Hardy ran and he didn't win either. But each time we were getting closer to our goal. And eventually we were able to get Charles Barber to run. In fact, I remember along with Jack Horne and some other people, we went to Charles's house out on Sunset Avenue. In those days, he lived out there. And we were running out of time, and we convinced him to run. And I told him that I would make the nominating speech at the courthouse the next day. And I would get Reverend Bunn to make the other speech. And we got him on the ballot and the rest is history. He became the first black mayor in the history of Charlottesville.
Mr. Gilliam: During the time that you were conducting this political organization, a change occurred in the composition of the School Board. Can you tell me what happened to change the composition of the School Board?
Mr. Bell: Well, let's see. That would have been - what? June of '65, I think. That's when the city council decided that it was time to have some type of representation on the board from the black population and Lindsey Mount and Bernard Haggarty came to see me at my office and asked me would I consent to their nominating me to the School Board. And I had no apprehension whatsoever. I said well if you want to do that, I'm here. Just do it. And I was surprised but that was the political reality that motivated them to come see me because we were getting pretty good voting strength in the city. And the Democrats wanted to be the majority in the city council and there were some other people. Bobby Lee was well respected. Republican, conservative. And some other people on the board were helpful among city council. But the tone was changing because this thing was working in terms of representation. The legal battles, the pot - the political mess that a lot of the state legislators got the state into was beginning to disappear. And other places - things were happening in Tidewater and in Richmond, Virginia, Lynchburg and some other places. I think that perhaps had more to do with it than - and Charlottesville just happened to have taken the leadership. I might mention - and we all remember - Tom Michie's father who was the mayor of Charlottesville. And he had had some experience in governing over in Italy. He was a member of the Judge Advocate School. He made a public statement when we were going to desegregate Lane that anyone that interfered with that process would be arrested and dealt with. And that set a nice tone for people. The White Citizen's Council was well organized here and their leadership was - they were trying to intimidate students and parents in the black population. And after that came out, I believe that it did a lot to sway the greater population. It just said look we need to work on this way it should be worked on. Let's get together and stop fighting it. Let's do something because the children - we've got to do what's best for them. And they did.
Mr. Gilliam: As I understand the story, several things were happening at about the same time. The Court kept pushing Charlottesville to do something. And yet the Charlottesville School Board dragged their heels. And then as a result of the registration drive and organizing efforts of the NAACP, the black community started to develop some political muscle. And once the city - the city Democratic Committee and the city council realized that there was some political strength in the black community, they became a lot more interested in appointing a black to the School Board and in getting the job done that the court ordered. Would integration have been accomplished as quickly and as peacefully as it was without the organizing efforts that you and others did in the NAACP?
Mr. Bell: No. I don't think so. What surprised me - and I wasn't aware of it - but there were a lot of people in the population - leaders, ministers, and other folks - that did not want to speak out. The rector or priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church at the University spoke out. There was some vandalism on his church after he did that. That was the time of Sarah Patton Boyle was one of the activists in saying that the black kids should have an equal opportunity in education. But you didn't have a consensus. The leadership of the town kept quiet. I had people to tell me, Ray, I want to see desegregation, but I can't speak out. And of course I would ask them why not. We need your voice. But nobody would risk - maybe it was an economic thing. I don't know. But people later became city councilmen and other positions. We didn't see them to help in those days when the struggle was going on. They weren't there. And I think it would have - that's about the only way it could have been done - the way it was done.
Mr. Gilliam: What accounts for the eventual willingness of these people to go public?
Mr. Bell: Afterwards you mean? Oh yeah. We had a lot of people boarding the bus later. And it helped. It helped. And we had no animosity toward people, who didn't, but many of the folks that we wanted some help from - and really we were looking at the church leadership here - it was not forthcoming. And Henry Mitchell came to town and became director at Trinity. And Henry was quite an activist in civil rights. And he later succeeded me on the School Board. But Henry and Charles Barber and some of the other - I'm trying to think if there was a minister at Mt. Zion church where Alvin Edwards is. Of course, Reverend Bunn was always there doing what he could do. I think that the man was named Reverend Wyatt. But he came here from Norfolk. But he was very active, locally in getting some things organized and getting some of the ministers to come together and meet as a clergy group. That helped.
Mr. Gilliam: Could the court orders have been carried out if the black community had lacked political strength?
Mr. Bell: No. No. I don't think so. I don't think it would have happened. It may have in time, but we were overdue in terms of getting desegregation done. Other places in other parts of the country had the same struggle, but I think - and I think we should be proud that Charlottesville was one of the places - or one of the leaders in that movement of desegregation.
Mr. Gilliam: Why was it successful in Charlottesville?
Mr. Bell: Because of a lawsuit Allen versus the Board of Education. That was the factor that made that happen because we were not getting anywhere otherwise. We had to use the courts.
Mr. Gilliam: Could the court orders have been carried out without the proper political climate?
Black Political Power
Mr. Bell: No. I don't think so. See, the other thing we were lucky - I used to go over to Harrisonburg to the hearings that Judge Paul had. John Battle was representing the School Board and later Lindsey Almond and some other guy that became governor. But anyway, once you sit through that and you had reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post and we would break for lunch and discuss the case. And they couldn't believe what John Battle was saying to the judge. But Judge Paul never swollowed any of it. He was just sitting there listening and their arguments weren't too good. And you could - it came to the point where you just knew - if you had followed it that this isn't too far from coming to a conclusion because Paul is a little angry, or he was a little pissed that these guys hadn't moved with some of his orders with deliberate speed so to speak.
Mr. Gilliam: What do you think caused his orders to suddenly be obeyed?
Mr. Bell: I don't know. Well, of course, you know the city council threatened to that whoever participated in that was going to be jailed or whatever it was they would do. I don't know whether that had much force, but this guy - I wish someone would write a book about him because he is an interesting man. We did not think he would come up with some of the orders that he came simply because he was a southerner. But he wanted to see that it was done fair and equitably. And you gain respect for him through that whole time. And the lawyers would say Judge Paul will take care of it. Just practice good law and he will do what the constitution says.
Mr. Gilliam: Could you in one sentence - your own words - describe for me the connection between developing political strength in the black community and the ability to carry out these court orders? Could you tell me in your words how important you think it was that the -
Mr. Bell: Well, like most things in America in terms of political power, Charlottesville is not any other exception than any other state. But what we had here in Charlottesville and I had the opportunity to serve with some of the men and women on the School Board and we - a lot of - the thing a lot of people feared was just propaganda. People said oh we can't go to school with black children. We can't play basketball. We can't play football with them. I don't want my daughter to be in contact with any black students at Lane High School, etc. etc. But we had on the School Board some outstanding people. Tom Michie was there. Buddy Kessler of R.E. Lee. Hovey Dabney came on. Dr. Conklin McClain. A lady who became chairman Ruby day - Ruby O'Day I think. But anyway they were all successful professional people and they could see what was happening in with the black situation. The way it was. The people were being denied. Proper channels of - just the opportunity to show what they were made of and what they could do. And as the political power grew, more and more minds were convinced that this is serious business. If we're going to have any kind of community and if we care about our community, we've got to respect all of the citizens and do as much for blacks as is done for white kids. And you had a commitment from leaders and even city council of course changed. They'd start doing things that were helpful and were instrumental in getting some things done. It's amazing how sports will level the territory because we had some great basketball players at Lane. And I went to a game one time and I was looking at the audience or the fans and one big fan around town who was white was just out of his mind. Let's go. Let's go. And just praising the team. Afterwards I said to him remember when you were a member of the White Citizen's Council, I didn't hear any of that. You were talking as loud but you were against black kids going to school. Mr. Bell, that's all over with. We're doing fine. That's interesting how far you can go in leveling the playing ground.
Mr. Gilliam: That's great. That's great. David Cooke, who runs the Carriage Cleaners, was one of the coaches at Lane and he said we wanted those players. We weren't the least bit resistant. We were - I think what you say about sports being a very important unifying force.
Mr. Bell: Yes. You see because Burleigh - you had people playing at Burleigh - Burleigh won the state championship of black school's high school.
Mr. Gilliam: I told you I would get you out of here.
Mr. Bell: All right. Good. And they were happy. In fact, the coach, who today is the coach at Charlottesville High - I'm trying to - Garvin - or what was his name? Anyway he was one of the players at Lane but he didn't stay. And the reason he didn't stay he told me was that he was being harassed. He should have stuck it out. And he went back to Burleigh. Of course, when he came back to Burleigh, the kids didn't like him because they said he tried to be white. So go on back to Lane High School. Oh, Garvin - Garvin DeBerry - that's the coach. It was Garvin that said that. He went back to Burleigh and he became very successful, both at Burleigh and he went on to Virginia State University and became a star player. I think he may have been in the backfield. But it is interesting when you look back to see what happened. And it's a very proud history I believe. Maybe it was supposed to happen the way it did. I don't know. History will tell us whether that's true or not.
Mr. Gilliam: Thank you.
Mr. Bell: Thank you.
Mr. Mills: Can I ask one quick question?
Mr. Bell: Yes.
Pace of Change
Mr. Mills: Did it happen quicker than you thought? And you can look at George.
Mr. Bell: No. It didn't. No. You know, the Dean - I can't think of his name - at Howard Law School said this was going to be a good 10 to 15 years struggle and not to give up. We had it easy in Charlottesville compared to some places. These lawyers can tell you going into Mississippi and I remember Jim Farmer saying that one night he had to get in a hearse as a corpse to get out of town. And they took him to the airport in a box. And he admitted - he said Ray, I was scared as hell. But the things that some of the lawyers had to go through. I had an advantage in Charlottesville than other places. I could talk with people who didn't know me - white people - and they would think I was white. And they would tell me stuff that I - it was like the intelligence gathering. I got a lot of stuff - I said no, no, this guy is a member of the citizen's council and some other things I would solicit just by striking up a conversation. I'd be in Scott Stadium hanging around and talking to people. One day I ended up talking to George Allen. George was coming down to see young George playing quarterback. It was on a Saturday. Now we didn't have any kind of conversation like that, but that's the type of thing that I used to enjoy going around and talking to people.

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