At 91, Brother Bell still tolls for his city

Buffalo

Throughout Buffalo and Western New York and around the United States, people are celebrating Black History Month. Clifford Bell has lived it.

Bell’s accomplishments could fill volumes. A year ago on Martin Luther King’s birthday, Brian Higgins stood before the U.S. House of Representatives and offered a tribute to his former Common Council mate, saying that Bell had lived a “life of love representing the best of our community and our country.”

He’s still doing it, at a ripe old 91. Bell — or  “Brother Bell,” as he’s known around town — remains a civic force. He is the chairman of the Buffalo African American Museum, which has two historical exhibits on display at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library to honor the history of the city’s black community.

Bell, one of seven children (five boys) of Emmett and Thelma Bell, was born in the front bedroom at 78 Monroe St. on the city’s East Side in 1929, the same birth year as Martin Luther King, his hero. Brother Bell and his siblings attended the old P.S 75 school across the street from their home for years.

He was active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and beyond; served on the Common Council from 1984-96, where he chaired the Economic Development Committee; served for 23 years as a business advisor for the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State; has been a leader at the Luther Church of Our Savior since 1955, the year he married his wife, Taffy.

Bell, whose family owned a cleaner’s for more than 50 years in the city, has been called a community treasure. He’s a walking history of black Buffalo. How many people can say they attended King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963,  and walked in Black Lives Matter marches more than half a century later, with activists 70 years his junior?

“The Lord’s been so good to me,” Bell said by phone Tuesday. “I’ve been involved in so many things. I look at it in amazement. You’re right, I have a big thing for history. Right now, we’re doing a thing on black elected officials in the City of Buffalo, starting with the Thirties. Sherman Walker was the first. He represented the Fifth Ward, which is now the Ellicott District.

“I was there for the first thing of anything African-American in Buffalo,” he said Tuesday, “because I’ve lived here all my life. I pretty much know people everywhere.”

Bell is perhaps most proud of his 30-year chairmanship of the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, which ran from about 1979-2009. He helped raise more than $250,000 for the construction of a bust of King that stands in MLK Park. He also organized city-wide artistic performances at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, bringing in such notable national talents as Eartha Kitt. 

“It’s impossible to go anywhere in the black community and find somebody who doesn’t know him, or who he’s not involved with,” said Stan Coleman, who worked with Bell on the MLK committee in his days as a Channel 2 TV reporter and became one of his dearest friends. 

“He knows everybody,” said Coleman, who is filming a documentary of Bell’s life. “When they’re doing something, they call Brother Bell. He raised that celebration to a higher level. My job was to make it a smooth production. We became close. He’s like a dad to me.”

Having spent years on the MLK celebration, Bell was understandably chagrined by a public protest of the King bust in MLK park. One vocal critic, Samuel Herbert, complained in 2018 that the 8-foot-tall bronze monument, the work of noted sculptor John Woodrow Wilson, didn’t resemble Dr. King. 

Herbert collected signatures to replace the sculpture. Bell said it was never intended to be an exact likeness, but to symbolize an “every man” that young black youth and others could identity with as a reflection of King’s legacy. 

Bell and the 12-person Buffalo African American Museum (BAM) committee wanted to address the public concerns about the statue and educate citizens about the statue’s origins. He said Wilson modeled the King bust on the historic Olmec heads of Mexico. It’s the second-largest tribute to King in the country, next to one in the Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. 

“We felt we would share this by doing an exhibit about it,” Bell said. “We called it “The Making of a Monument,” which took us step-by-step through the whole process.”

The tribute to the King monument sits in the downtown library, one of two museum exhibits that commemorate Buffalo’s rich African American culture during Black History Month. The other was featured in the portable museum’s first exhibit in February of 2020 and is back this year— a history of the Michigan Avenue YMCA, which was the center of black community life in Buffalo from 1927-77. 

It’s important for people to remember their own history, and to learn from it. That’s the point of Black History Month. Coleman said Bell has a passion for local history and is determined to help people keep it alive.

“And not just black history,” Bell said. “Buffalo is an underrated city. This is one of the most sought-after cities in America for taking pictures of architecture. We have the Olmsted Parks system, one of the best in the world. For Martin Luther King Park to be a part of that system and be the place where this statue is erected makes it doubly historical.”

The work never ends. Bell said the Olmsted Parks Conservancy been a tremendous help in renovating the monument at MLK Park. He wants it to be a designation for visitors, along with the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor in downtown Buffalo.

“We’re on a mission still yet,” Bell said. “As long as I’m able to breathe and move around. In fact, I just recorded two programs for a couple of churches giving my outlook on Black History Month and reading one of my poems.”

Yes, he’s a poet, too. There’s a lot to be thankful for, a lot of progress. Bell grew up in a time when much of the country was formally segregated, when blacks couldn’t use the same facilities as whites or play in the Major Leagues. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.

Imagine how it feels to work so hard and so long for racial equality and see white supremacists marching into the Capitol wielding Confederate flags.

“I saw it and I believed it,” Bell said, “because it’s something I’ve been familiar with since I was very, very young. It never was the official flag of the South, but it’s representative of what they felt or believe, and what it stood for! For someone to go in with that flag on his shoulder … I’m very concerned about the reaction of the American people to the last four years.

“I still have hope that somewhere, somehow, things will get better,” he said. “That’s why I was involved in all the activities in the Fifties and Sixties. I said, ‘Well, my children won’t have to go through this stuff if I can just help straighten this out now’. But I’m talking to my great-grandchildren now, and they’re still not considered an integral part of America’s future.

“See, the one thing we’ve not been able to have with the American people and any of its leadership is a conversation about slavery.”

How do you not get cynical, he was asked?

“Oh, because I’ve got faith,” he said. “I’ve never been negative. I’ve been called names and treated with disrespect, but not for long.”

He’s going on 92 but remains young at heart. Bell said he’s young in body, too. Last Saturday, he and Taffy, who have five great-grandchildren, were honored at Broadway Market by WUFO radio as the legendary Valentine’s Day couple. They celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary in August.  He danced with Taffy, spun her around, read his poetry. 

“She’s 88 years old,” he said. “For putting up with me for 65 years, she should be sainted.”

Brother Bell has a pretty good track record with the Lord, too. He has a reputation in the community for saying yes and helping any way he can, whether it’s a church, a young businessman, a museum exhibit or a Black Lives Matter rally.

“Oh yeah,” Bell said, “and I’ll do it tomorrow if you tell me where to be.”

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