Carolyn Williams Bell
Activism takes a lot of different forms. Rev. Carolyn Lee Williams Bell had a powerful serve and a strong backhand until her last set on September 11, 2018. I’ve discovered for myself and through the life of my mother what it is to be someone who stands for other people’s greatness. She lived her life in service of family, community, and the lives of all people and in particular the lives of African-Americans. It is inspiring to go through the articles written about her over the years, her accomplishments and notoriety. But the accolades are only by-products of a mission that she embodied: use your influence, knowledge, and wisdom to help others.
Tennis was her first vehicle for activism. Carolyn had a natural ability with tennis and in a short period of time became a national tennis champion. She was the first female to win the National Girls Junior Singles title, Women’s Doubles title and Women’s Singles titles of the ATA (American Tennis Association) and in 1961, she was solidified as the nation’s top African-American female tennis player. As a student at I.C. Norcom High School in Portsmouth Virginia, she won many district and state tennis titles and was named the Olympian Sports Club’s 1961 Athlete of the Year.
She shared many state doubles titles with her brother, LaMar Williams. She trained in the same camp with her male counterpart, Arthur Ashe and became one of the first African-American women to play in the US Open Tennis Tournament (Forest Hills). During the sixties, Carolyn traveled throughout the country competing in tennis tournaments, sometimes as the only African-American where she and Ashe broke through color barriers. Their victories opened doors into whites-only tournaments, creating pathways for other African-American women and men.
Carolyn wasn’t just a successful athlete. She earned a Master of Divinity from Virginia Union University, a Master of Science (Educational Guidance) from Virginia State University, a Bachelor of Social Work/Sociology from Central State University (Wilberforce, Ohio), a postgraduate Certification in Secondary School Guidance; and graduated in I.C. Norcom High School’s class of ‘62 (Portsmouth, Virginia). She was ordained as a Minister and was named associate pastor at Canaan Baptist Church, Suffolk, VA by Dr. Robert Barnes, former Pastor.
Carolyn was a champion for communities that were underserved, oppressed and impoverished. By using her gifts of writing and communication, she made a lasting impact on people’s lives. She also used her relationships with people of influence such as NFL athletes, pop music stars, politicians, entrepreneurs, activists, and ministers to forward her social justice aims. She participated in social justice activities with the NAACP and Urban League and rallied organizations into civil rights action. Carolyn personified social graces and that led her to become Homecoming Queen at I.C. Norcom High School and also an AKA (Alpha Kappa Alpha) in college at Central State University. Her passion for education led her to take court as a guidance counselor in Portsmouth Public Schools, at Old Dominion University in various positions and at Norfolk State University as Associate Vice President for Advancement and Director of Community Relations. There she worked in collaboration with former president Dr. Harrison B. Wilson and mentor Mal Nicholson in building community ties through the promotion of large concerts with over 10,000 people attending. She founded and became president of the Park Place Redevelopment Foundation, and acquired funding from the Ford Foundation to build 37 low-income-housing houses in Norfolk.
She embodied a relentless work ethic and a mindset of deliberate practice and study. Once she began a project, she would go deep and wide in her study of a subject’s domain. Those skills of community organizing, relationship building, and persistent study served her well as an entrepreneur in writing grants and establishing 501C3’s for various organizations across the country. In addition to affordable housing, her studies included HIV/Aids issues, urban farming, women's issues, health and wellness, after-school programs for youth, trademark law and branding. Carolyn studied Jesus Christ and gave herself fully to live a Christ-like life and embrace people in need as family.
Carolyn lived a full and creative life. She didn’t brag about her accomplishments but she was an angel walking among us. One of her most endearing traits was her humility. She recently co-authored a book with me that became an Amazon #1 best seller called “Bellringer Branding Bible”. Carolyn was also featured in another Amazon best selling book called "Radical Transformational Leadership" written by systemic social change expert Dr. Monica Sharma. Struck by the need for more activism-focused children's books, she recently began work with graphic artists on a children's book. Her creative legacy included songs, a couple of tv show scripts, a musical play, motivational speaking, preaching, speech writing and a newspaper she founded and published called “Spiritual Times”.
Carolyn was a philosopher and sage. She used her tennis racket in her activism as a youth and her pen and voice as an adult. There are many lessons to be learned from the life of my mother. You can express your activism on your job by examining how to make life better for yourself and others in the workplace. You can express your activism where you live by getting involved in the health and safety for all in your community. You can show your activism by making sure that your family is supported through moments of tragedy or turbulence. You can change things wherever you are and that is what she did. She was arrested for protesting for civil rights when she was in college and she was arrested by the injustices she saw around her throughout her life. I recall when she visited me in California and we attended a movie screening about mass incarceration. On the way to the airport she was so disturbed about those statistics and the systemic issues that she said to me: “ I’m going to do something about that”. And when she returned to Virginia, she did just that. She became instrumental in the Restoration Ministry at Grove Church and went into prisons with the team to minister, mentor, and create resources for incarcerated populations.
Carolyn, aka “MaBell”, loved family and not just her surviving family: Me (son), Clare Norris-Bell (daughter in-law), Lamar Williams (brother); Maggi Curry-Williams (sister in-law); Nichole Williams (niece); Patrick Williams (nephew); Wallace Bell (brother-in-law); Barbara Blunt (sister-in-law) or those who preceded her in death: Harvey Bell Jr. (former-husband, my dad); Stacy Bell (daughter) Sandy Williams (father); or Beatrice Williams (mother) but an extended family of sons, daughters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and people she mentored, counseled, served, organized, and led.
There are many more stories I could share that are awe-inspiring. Rev. Carolyn Lee Williams Bell’s life was one lived from a standard of excellence and commitment towards humanity. She would say to me that I was her greatest accomplishment. I’m humbled yet honored to carry the torch of her legacy. –By Marcus Bell
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