Standing up for oneself all started with my great-uncle and his cousin William ‘Billy’ James. Uncle Billy as he was affectionately known to family and friends was an honor roll student and all-around athlete in high school in Sumter, SC in the 1930s. He was a graduate of Morris Brown College. He was inducted into their college Athletes Hall of Fame. Uncle Billy was the first black attorney allowed to practiced law in his hometown of Sumter. He was was no shrinking violet, he came out of the box demanding equal rights, equal employment and voting rights for the black community in Sumter. He was also inducted into the Black South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2005 for his contributions as a civil rights’ activist and attorney.
My mother’s parents, his cousins were educators. Her mother was a school teacher and her father was a principal. They became targets of the Klu Kux Klan after a cross was burned on the lawn of Uncle Billy. The family was chased out of Sumter led by uncle Billy. My mother’s parents were murdered by the KKK. Her brothers and sisters, Carl, Earl, Mary and Mae all fled north to New York City and Washington, DC with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Uncle Billy settled in DC and during the depression, he received a Presidential appointment from President Franklin Roosevelt. He served on the staff of the Civil Conservation Corps as an Educational Advisor. In the 1950s he worked as an attorney with the Federal Government. Sumter was always home, when he retired from the Federal Government in the 60s he returned to his roots in South Carolina.
On his return to Sumter he received a heroes’ welcome, his success in Washington, DC as a presidential appointee and as an attorney for the federal government was well chronicled in the local newspaper.
Uncle Billy was thinking only of retirement when he returned to Sumter, but the community had public office on their minds and he could not say, “NO!” Unlike today’s politicians, he was well versed, super sensitive to justice for all and he worn his heart on his sleeve (aka Harold Bell).
He won elected office and became the architect of single member districts in the county. A single member district is an electoral district represented by a single officeholder. It contrasts with multi-member districts, which is represented by multiple officeholders. These districts did not serve the black voters–he fought and changed the landscape for the black voter. When Uncle Billy died on February 6, 1989 there was standing room only in the church, friends and admirers came from around the state to pay their respect. There was a story written that he once said, “I am a open book, my criticism was always aimed at the method and not the individual.” You can look up the definition of transparency and you will find the names of William B. James and Harold Bell.
My mother’s younger brother, Earl ‘Sparky’ Smith settled in Brooklyn, New York and became an All-City basketball player. He won a basketball scholarship to Virginia Union College in Richmond, Virginia to play for the great coach, Tom ‘Tricky’ Harris. He was named to the All-CIAA team, his junior and senior years. He was inducted into the Brooklyn Basketball Hall of Fame. The Brooklyn Hall of Fame is second only to the NBA Hall of Fame in America (I traveled to Brooklyn for his induction).
I was born in Brooklyn, but I had never been back to the city. I had two friends who played at Virginia Union after Uncle Earl. They were already in the Brooklyn Hall Fame, ‘Jumping’ Jackie Jackson and Eddie Simmons, affectionately known as ‘The Czar.’ Jack DeFares and Carl Greene two New York City playground legends and Winston-Salem alumni threaten me if I didn’t show my face for the induction. Uncle Earl retired from the Brooklyn Public School system as a Principal.
The Globetrotters Curly Neal and Jackie Jackson with Harold