As guests enter the Stickney Avenue home of Norman and Ora Bell — a modest house they have lived in for 53 years — many notice a framed boll of raw cotton hanging amid dozens of family pictures and civic awards covering nearly every inch of the wall.
“Whenever things get hard, whenever someone said, ‘This is too hard,’ I would point at that say, ‘It’s not as hard as picking cotton,’ ” Mrs. Bell said.
Picking cotton in Louisiana and sharecropping are part of Mrs. Bell’s history, and by extension, part of the history of her four sons: Mike, Keith, Norman, Jr., and Shawn.
For Mike Bell — Toledo’s mayor, who is fighting for re-election to a second term — and his parents, family history defines them.
“It’s actually a driving force for me — understanding the only reason I could be who I am is because I had so many people looking out for me,” Mayor Bell said. “I was blessed with two parents who are well-grounded and well-educated only because their parents were well-grounded.”
Both Mr. and Mrs. Bell have master’s degrees and look back on long successful careers. They also both have humble beginnings originating in the South before the civil rights movement. Although neither can definitively say their ancestors were slaves in the South before the Civil War, both have tidbits of evidence and have heard family lore suggesting that could be the case.
“As far as the slave ship, I can’t go that far ’cause I don’t have that information,” the older Mr. Bell said. “On my father’s side ... there were some slavery discussions, but I can’t document that.”
Mr. Bell said his father was light-skinned and that his ancestors had some connection to Ireland as well as Africa, but again, he is not sure.
“All the people on my father’s side were fair-skinned,” he said. “We are seeking that information, but we don’t have it today.”
Another hint came from the older Mr. Bell’s great aunt, who interestingly used to eat with her hands, he said.
“My mother’s sister — and I didn’t understand why — but she was eating with her hands,” Mr. Bell said. “And it was a practice from Africa. They are still eating with their hands in Tanzania, and when I was there last year and 10 years ago, I saw that at a formal dinner.”
They’re more familiar with their roots from Louisiana, where they both grew up. Mrs. Bell was born during the Depression in Colfax, La. — a small town along a river, 25 miles from Alexandria.
Her parents were sharecroppers — meaning they shared profits from harvesting crops such as sweet potatoes, corn, beans, sugar cane, and cotton with the landowner. They also raised livestock and slaughtered the animals.
“Do I remember it? I participated. That was our livelihood,” Mrs. Bell said sternly and with a laugh. “We did work on different plantations. It was hard but it was honest ... and so many times I am able to draw on some of those things that seemed to be so difficult and so unfair and you find a way to use it in a modified way and it comes in very handy.”
Proper to the period when she was child, Mrs. Bell recalls her childhood home as a “homestead.”
The homestead was on the edge of a bayou near a river that was prone to flooding — which sent her and her siblings fleeing. Her father later bought land on higher ground and built a “great big square building” where they all lived. That later became the barn after Mrs. Bell’s father built a home on the property.
“I was one of seven, and I am in the middle with three above and three below,” Mrs. Bell said. “We had four boys and three girls.” All of them worked in the fields with Mrs. Bell’s parents — Ned James and Susie Lee Harper. Her parents’ pictures are among the many in the Bell home.
The older Mr. Bell’s mother was a domestic worker.
“That means she cleaned homes for white people,” the older Mr. Bell said. “My mom [finished] eighth grade and my father was [in school] until third grade but he was a skilled plasterer.”
He has more details about the paternal side of his family than his mother’s ancestors.
“I can go back to my grandfather on my father’s side,” he said. “My [paternal] grandfather, I remember him quite well on my father’s side — his name was Hampton Bell — and my father was Major Bell.”
Mr. Bell, who was born in 1932, doesn’t have any pictures of his maternal grandparents.
He was an only child by his mother but has five half-brothers and three half-sisters from his father.
Mr. and Mrs. Bell both attended Southern University A&M College in Baton Rouge, where they met. She studied home economics, and he received a degree in business administration.
The Bells were among thousands of blacks who left the South for Toledo in the 1950s. The older Mr. Bell had completed ROTC and then spent time in the military. With a bachelor’s degree in hand, he was looking for a good job. At the invitation of a cousin in Toledo, he decided he wouldn’t return to Louisiana and opted to stay in Toledo. Mrs. Bell followed him to Toledo a year later.
Mike Bell, at age 5, came with his mother to Toledo from Louisiana.
Together, the Bell’s raised four boys: Mike and his three younger brothers, Keith, Norman, Jr., and the youngest, Shawn, who died on Feb. 3, 2003, of a heart attack.
A graduate of Woodward High School and the University of Toledo, Mike Bell’s first job after college was working as a brakeman on the railroad. He did that for about seven years before his father persuaded him to apply for a job on the Toledo Fire Department, which he joined in 1980. Mayor Bell, 58, was elevated to fire chief in 1990 and held that post until 2007, when Gov. Ted Strickland appointed him state fire marshal. He resigned from that job before campaigning for mayor four years ago.
He is running in the general election against D. Michael Collins, a fellow independent who serves on Toledo City Council.
As the city’s second African-American mayor after Jack Ford, Mayor Bell said he encountered discrimination at times in his past, but he always brushed it off. And now, he said he has not allowed race to guide his decisions.