Gregarious, outgoing and possessing an easy laugh, James Bell didn’t have trouble relating to students when he arrived at Cal Poly Pomona in 1968.
“He was very kind, very sweet, thoughtful, meticulous in detail, really fair-minded,” recalled daughter Elena Bell (’87, social work), who was a student on campus during her father’s tenure. “All the students loved him. He was there to help. He served as the bridge between the students and the upper faculty.”
In teaching posts at historically black colleges during the late 1950s and ’60s in the South, Bell faced his share of segregation and racism as the fight for civil rights swirled. At Cal Poly Pomona and in the CSU, he championed diversity and sought to shatter racial divides.
He died March 23 at the age of 90.
Bell was the first African American to hold a dean’s and vice president’s position in the CSU system, serving as Cal Poly Pomona’s dean of the School of Arts (the predecessor of the College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences) and as vice president for administration and student affairs. He retired in 1989.
His outreach initiatives were instrumental in boosting the enrollment of African American students. Since then, Cal Poly Pomona has been consistently lauded as one of the most diverse campuses in the country.
“Diversity was huge for him. There was outreach, but he also wanted to make sure that there were supportive programs,” Elena Bell said. “Getting African American students there was one thing. Keeping them there was another thing. He made sure they had supportive services on campus.”
Bell and social sciences Professor George Jenkins were the only black faculty members when they started on campus in the late ’60s, remembers Jenkins’ daughter, Lorraine Jenkins Jones, who has been a staff member at the university since 1975 and knew Bell and his family.
Bell was born on Oct. 2, 1925, in New Jersey. By the time he graduated from high school, World War II had been raging for several years. He and his brothers joined the military, and Bell served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater. He was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1946.
After returning home, he married Edna Greene in September 1948. Their oldest daughter, Fulani, was born the following year in New Jersey. Bell used the G.I. Bill to attend Lincoln University and graduated in 1952. Bell went on to Columbia University to earn his master’s degree and doctorate in health, physical education and recreation. He received a President’s Scholarship and was a Danforth Fellow while at Columbia.
In a time of segregation, Bell had to work at high schools and at historically black colleges. He held teaching positions at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Norfolk State University in Virginia. Bell’s two other children, James and Elena, were born during his teaching stops. It was at Norfolk State that Bell was recruited to come to Cal Poly Pomona.
James E. Jones, a family friend and fellow Lincoln University alumnus, came out to Los Angeles a decade earlier to lead Westminster Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles. He persuaded Bell to choose the Pomona job over an offer from San Francisco State.
“Coming from historically black colleges, Cal Poly Pomona was vast with new equipment,” Elena Bell said. “He saw it as an opportunity for education and upward mobility. He was excited about what he could do.”
Bell started in 1968 as a professor in health, physical education and recreation. He also served as director of black studies and as special assistant to the vice president for academic affairs. In addition, he was the first African American elected to the board of the Pomona Unified School District.
In 1987, Bell was named acting president during the six-month sabbatical of then-President Hugh O. La Bounty.
“His acceptance of people was his best quality, his inclusiveness,” said Sonia Blackman, a psychology professor emeritus who retired in 1999. “When he was acting president, he invited people who would never otherwise be invited to the president’s lunch room. If you were a custodian, he knew your name. He would say, ‘Why don’t you come to lunch one day?’ He knew everybody. He cared about people and they cared about him. He was interested in cultures and people from around the world. We traveled widely.”
The Cal Poly Pomona ties run deep in Bell’s family. Two of his children, James and Elena, are graduates of the College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences. Elena is a licensed clinical social worker in Pasadena. James (’75, political science) is an attorney and founder of the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice, Fairness and Equity based in Oakland. Granddaughter Sumiyah Mshaka (’02, social work), also a Cal Poly Pomona graduate, is a licensed clinical social worker.
Bell’s legacy was felt on campus even after his retirement in 1989. The James Bell Internship in Student Affairs, which allowed students to learn about the inner workings of the Division of Student Affairs, was established in 1994 in his honor. The College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences houses the Dr. Sonia Blackman and Dr. James Bell Endowed Scholarship. To make a donation to the legacy of Bell, go to the giving webpage or make a check payable to the Sonia Blackman and James Bell Endowment Fund, College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences, Cal Poly Pomona, 3801 W. Temple Ave., Pomona, CA 91768.
“He was so loved. Even when he retired, when I walked on campus with him people would come out of buildings to see him and give him a hug,” said Blackman, who was Bell’s partner for 31 years. “We rarely went anywhere where someone wasn’t coming up to him to say how much he had done for him or her.”
In 2003, Bell received the Diversity Leadership Award, an acknowledgement of his contributions to the university.
“For me, diversity is not a program, it’s not a class, it’s not an occupation,” Bell said at the Unity Luncheon awards ceremony. “For me, it’s my life.”