Differing racial experiences shape mayoral rivals’ outlooks

Bell and Collins discuss episodes of prejudice, influence on their views

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    Norman and Ora Harrison-Bell, Mayor Mike Bell's parents, insisted their children always act respectfully, speak articulately, and get a good education, Mayor Bell says.

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  • Norman and Ora Harrison-Bell, Mayor Mike Bell's parents, insisted their children always act respectfully, speak articulately, and get a good education, Mayor Bell says.
    Norman and Ora Harrison-Bell, Mayor Mike Bell's parents, insisted their children always act respectfully, speak articulately, and get a good education, Mayor Bell says.

    One Toledo mayoral candidate grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, the other in a predominantly white neighborhood.

    As a child, only one of them was bullied, called racist names, and faced discrimination. The other “was a happy kid,” with lots of friends in his neighborhood and at school, where he excelled as an athlete and student.

    Toledo City Councilman D. Michael Collins, who is of Irish and German descent, lived with his parents in an apartment at 711 Fernwood Ave., two blocks off Dorr Street and within walking distance of downtown Toledo in what was then a nearly all-black neighborhood. He recalls feeling self-conscious about looking and talking differently than everyone else around him.

    “I learned that crackers weren’t made by Saltines at an early age,” said Mr. Collins, 69, who is seeking to unseat fellow independent Mayor Mike Bell on Nov. 5.

    “I felt rejected,” he said. “I was bullied. Sometimes I was beaten up, but I don’t think it had anything to do with my race.”

    He cannot, however, offer any other reason why he would be beaten up.

    RELATED ARTICLE: Collins won't reject secret anti-Bell ads

    It was a much different experience for Mr. Bell, who grew up in a predominantly white Polish neighborhood in the north end of Toledo. The schools he attended — Spring Elementary School and Woodward High School — had diverse student populations, and skin color and ethnicity didn’t seem to matter much to the children with whom he grew up and played, he said.

    Mayor Bell credits his parents for instilling in him the values that helped make him successful: Always act in a respectful manner, speak articulately, embrace diversity, and pursue the best education possible.

    Following some of those rules has at times made Mayor Bell a target of critics, who he says have accused him of “trying to talk like white people,” associating too much with whites, “not doing enough to help black people,” and being a “sellout.”

    Race for Mayor
    Race for Mayor

    “It doesn’t bother me if someone says, I’m not enough of this or enough of that,” Mayor Bell said during a recent interview that took place at the home on Stickney Avenue in north Toledo where he grew up.

    “My parents taught me the importance of diversity and the proper way of doing things to make you successful — like speaking articulately. Some people might consider that speaking white. No, it’s called learning how to communicate properly,” Mr. Bell said.

    It’s a problem many educated, professional blacks eventually face, the mayor said. The black community fights and pushes for educational opportunities, but when someone obtains that education they’re suddenly “labeled as a sellout.”

    “What many people don’t understand is that you have to become part of the system in order to change things,” Mayor Bell said. “You don’t change things from the outside.” 

    Racial tensions

    Councilman Collins said his father was a proud Irishman, born in Ireland, who made three demands of his children: Be devout Catholics, obtain a college education, “and never disgrace this family.”

    The Collins family lived on Fernwood because his mother collected rent from the building’s tenants, while his father worked for the S.M. Jones Co. plant on Segur Avenue, established by former Mayor Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones. Mr. Collins recalls the most “horrific experience” from his childhood being a break-in at their apartment when several people stole all the rent his mother had collected for the landlord.

    Mr. Collins attended Roosevelt School for kindergarten and St. Teresa’s School until the fourth grade, when his family moved to 1106 Orchard St. in South Toledo, where he attended St. James School. His new neighborhood was all-white, at least for one year until a black man moved into the neighborhood.

    “The neighborhood went nuclear,” Mr. Collins recalled. “People were building crosses on his lawn, throwing things at his house, screaming things [racial epithets].”

    The scene prompted the then fifth-grader to grab a piece of plywood from his family’s garage and paint the message: “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

    He showed up at the black neighbor’s house with his sign and was promptly pummeled and kicked to the ground by the angry white mob “while police just stood by,” Mr. Collins said.

    When he returned home, his alarmed mother used a wet washcloth and attempted to wipe the dirt and blood from his face and arms. His father arrived soon after.

    “I thought he would be mad because I used the wood without his permission,” Mr. Collins recalls. “Instead, he sat me on his lap and told me, ‘Son, right now I’m the proudest father in the world — but don’t ever go back to that house without me.’ ”

    Mr. Collins, whose father died when he was a high school senior, doesn’t pretend to have a good grasp yet of understanding diversity, racism, and discrimination.

    “In my law-enforcement career, I left with a myopic view — everything was black and white,” said Mr. Collins, who retired from the Toledo Police Department 14 years ago. Since then he’s had several opportunities, such as serving as an adjunct instructor at the University of Toledo, where he said he’s been exposed to different ideas and experiences.

    “I see less the black-and-white and more gray,” he said. 

    Subtle prejudice

    Mayor Bell always has had a clear vision of who he is and what he believes in. It’s how he was raised, his parents Norman Bell, Sr., and Ora Harrison-Bell said.

    “Discipline, order, a strong work ethic — those were the things I wanted to instill in my four boys,” the elder Mr. Bell said. “My goal was to make them self-supporting and self-sustaining, and remind them that there is a double standard in America — but you can’t let that stop you.”

    Even as mayor, Mike Bell isn’t immune to subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, forms of prejudice.

    “When I go to political functions, I’m usually the only person of color in the room,” Mayor Bell said. “As soon as I enter the room, you can see people tense up and look uncomfortable.

    “I have to disarm people right away because it can be awkward when you’re the only one. I just walk into the crowd and get into it; I’m not in the hate mode.”

    Mike Bell, 58, was born in Louisiana. His father moved to Toledo in 1957 and the rest of the family followed in 1958. His parents and grandparents always told their children about their family’s history and experiences, including growing up in the segregated South.

    It was important for their children to know the sacrifices and suffering others have made for their benefit, Mrs. Bell said.

    Norman Bell, growing up, was a city dweller exposed daily to Louisiana’s racially segregated restaurants, restrooms, and buses. Ora Harrison-Bell’s family were sharecroppers; she was 1 of 11 children and attended a one-room schoolhouse. Her father had a third-grade education and the plantation owner was always threatening and trying to cheat him, she said.

    Mr. and Mrs. Bell met at Southern University, an all-black college — their only option for obtaining a college education during that era — and are to celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary Saturday. They both worked several jobs while raising their boys, and both obtained master’s degrees. In turn, they made sure their sons also earned college degrees. 

    Helping everyone

    Mayor Bell is aware of the criticism that “he hasn’t done enough for black people.” He disagrees. He says he focuses on the “bigger picture”: Attracting more jobs, reducing crime, hiring more police — things that help everyone, including the black community, he said.

    He also believes families need to support each other and help each other succeed; a value his parents instilled in him.

    Norman Bell nods his head in agreement, stands, and motions to follow him into another room in the family house.

    In that room, a wall is covered with every award, honor, or important memory the family has earned: a cotton boll that reminds Mrs. Bell of her heritage; sports trophies, educational awards, and high school and college degrees — the latter including the bachelor’s degree in education with a concentration in business Mayor Bell earned from the University of Toledo.

    “I don’t really care what people say about me,” Mayor Bell said. “Everything I am is what I was trained to do. My parents had high expectations.

    “I’m comfortable in my own skin.”

    Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.