Standing up for oneself all started with my great-uncle and his cousin William ‘Billy’ James. Uncle Billy as he was affectionately known to family and friends was an honor roll student and all-around athlete in high school in Sumter, SC in the 1930s. He was a graduate of Morris Brown College. He was inducted into their college Athletes Hall of Fame. Uncle Billy was the first black attorney allowed to practiced law in his hometown of Sumter. He was was no shrinking violet, he came out of the boxing demanding equal rights, equal employment and voting rights for the black community in Sumter. He was also inducted into the Black South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2005 for his contributions as a civil rights’ activist and attorney.
My mother’s parents, his cousins were educators. My mother’s mother was a school teacher and her father was a principal. They became targets of the Klu Kux Klan after a cross was burned on the lawn of Uncle Billy. The family was chased out of Sumter led by uncle Billy. My mother’s parents were murdered by the KKK. Her brothers and sisters, Carl, Earl, Mary and Mae all fled north to New York City and Washington, DC with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Uncle Billy settled in DC and during the depression, he received a Presidential appointment from President Franklin Roosevelt. He served on the staff of the Civil Conservation Corps as an Educational Advisor. In the 50s he worked as an attorney with the Federal Government. Sumter was always home, when he retired from the Federal Government in the 60s he returned to his roots in South Carolina.
On his return to Sumter he received a heroes’ welcome, his success in Washington, DC as a presidential appointee and as an attorney for the federal government was well chronicled in the local newspaper.
Uncle Billy was thinking only of retirement when he returned to Sumter, but the community had public office on their minds and he could not say, “NO!” Unlike today’s politicians, he was well versed, super sensitive to justice for all and he worn his heart on his sleeve (aka Harold Bell). He won elected office and became the architect of single member districts in the county. A single member district is an electoral district represented by a single officeholder. It contrasts with multi-member districts, which is represented by multiple officeholders. These districts did not serve black voters well–he fought and changed the landscape for the black voter.
When Uncle Billy died on February 6, 1989 there was standing room only in the church, friends and admirers came from around the state to pay their respect. There was a story written that he once said, “I am a open book, my criticism was always aimed at the method and not the individual.” You can look up the definition of transparency and you will find the names of William B. James and Harold Bell.
My mother’s young brother Earl ‘Sparky’ Smith settled in Brooklyn, New York and became an All-City basketball player. He won a basketball scholarship to Virginia Union College in Richmond, Virginia to play for the great coach, Tom ‘Tricky’ Harris. He was named to the All-CIAA team, his junior and senior years. He was inducted into the Brooklyn Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005. The Brooklyn Hall of Fame is second only to the NBA Hall of Fame (I traveled to Brooklyn for his induction).
I was born in Brooklyn, but I had never been back to the city. I had two friends who played at Virginion Union after Uncle Earl and were already in the Brooklyn Hall Fame. They were ‘Jumping’ Jackie Jackson and Eddie Simmons, affectionately known as ‘The Czar.’ Jack DeFares and Carl Greene two New York City playground legends and Winston-Salem alumnus threaten me if I didn’t show my face for the induction. Uncle Earl retired from the Brooklyn Public School system as a Principal.
My younger brother Earl served two tours in the U. S. Army where he became a Sgt. for the Military Police (MP). He was also an outstanding fullback on the Army base football team, a heavyweight boxing champion, and a table tennis ping pong champion. Despite President Harry Truman calling for desgregation of the U. S. Armed Forces in 1948, two decades later racism was alive and well in the U. S. Army in 1968.
During his second tour racism raised its ugly head in Nuremberg, Germany. Much like Uncle Billy he met the challenge head-on with other black military personnel. They said, “Enough is enough” to the off base military housing segregation and a downtown Nuremberg discotheque that allowed only white military personnel admission.
A third tour in the U. S. Army went out the window when a white lieutenant came out of the stands to protest a call while he was umpiring a softball game. The lieutenant refuse to leave the field and Earl forteited the game to the opposing team. The lieutenant wrote him up for insubornation–marring his unblimished record, that was enough for him.
In 1969 he returned home to join the DC police department to face the same racism he thought he had left behind in Germany. The DC Police Department was governed by “The Thin Blue Line and Code of Silence” a system that overlooked racism and police brutality absorbed in the black community, 2021 a change has not come.
He stood his ground and never gave up or gave in to the bigots and ‘Good Old Boys’ who ran the department. His 14-year career ended when his car skidded into a 16-wheeler truck on an iced-over bridge one early morning on his way to a new job assignment for 30 days at the Police and Fire Clinic in SE DC. See his story written by Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam’s summary of “The Life and Times of Sgt. Earl ‘Bull’ Bell.”
When I arrived at the hospital that morning the doctors described his survival as a miracle. He spent the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair and rooting for the Redskins. He died in a nursing home, but he had the spirit of our great-uncle William ‘Billy’ James—“See something, say something!” Earl was the best all-around athlete among the three of us.
My journey embodies the spirit of all three; the journey from an Outhouse in NE DC to the White House is a dream that I never thought possible.
It all started at Grandma Bell’s house in far NE DC after the one-room shack that my mother and I shared burned to the ground one cold November morning. I was about 4 years old. My mother had left the shack in the early hours of the morning to get some milk and bread at the corner store. A kerosence lamp was left burning to keep me and my dog billy warm, but one of us had accidently knocked over the lamp. When my mother returned from the store there were fire engines all over the street. I was sitting in the yard crying my eyes out with my dog Billy standing over me.
My mother thanked the firemen for saving me and Billy, but they refused to take any credit. They told my mother they found me sitting in the yard with my dog when they arrived. To this day I have no way of knowing how I got out of that burning shack, and Billy was not talking.
It was off to Grandma Bell’s house and Mt. Airy Baptist Church. Grandma and the church laid the foudation, it was there my late great-grandfather Alfred James Tyler, laid the first brick to build the church in 1893. Grandma laid the foundation that kept me afloat long after I left her and moved to the NE DC housing project called Parkside.
THE ROADS I TRAVELED THERE WERE NO “EVEN PLAYING FIELDS”
*First home-one room shack and outhouse in NE DC
*DC housing project 1945 (Parkside)
*Spingarn DC High school Coach Dave Brown (1955)
*Tobacco Road and Clarence Bighouse Gaines (1960)
*The Charleston Rockets minor league football (1964)
*Petey Greene WOL Radio (1965)
*First job-United Planning Organization ‘Neighborhood Worker’ (1967)
*Met Muhammad Ali on the of campus Howard University (1967)
*First sports media personality to encourage pro athletes to REACH-BACK (1967)
*Walked the streets during the riots with nothing but DC Police Department badge (1968).
*White House Presidential appointment (1969)
*1972 first black to host and produce DC sports talk show (1972)
*1974 first journalist to interview Muhammad Ali (Rumble in the Jungle)
*1975 first black to host and product sports special in primetime on NBC affiliate WRC-TV 4
*1980 first sportscaster honored as Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine
*Campaigned successfully to have Green Bay Packer All-Pro Willie Wood inducted into NFL Hall of Fame (1989)
*Campaigned successfully to have NBA pioneer Earl Lloyd inducted into NBA Hall of Fame (2001)
*Honored by National Association of Black Journalists with their 2020 pioneer award https://www.bigmarker.com/nabj/NABJ-Sam-Lacy-Awards-Program?%20bmid=99ea2ef240f2
I was not surprised by the Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell’s defiant stand against the Utah politicians’ trying to shove their definition of Critical Race Theory down the throats of the residents in Utah. He was just following the James/Bell tradition, seeing something and saying something!
Donovan’s response to the politicians who claimed he didn’t understand what they were trying to do, he said, “I think the biggest thing, the part that I stand for, is education and being able to educate our children on racial history. I think that’s huge. I think that’s a big part of it, understanding the foundation of how we got to this point.”
Donovan left Louisville University after his second year to pursue an NBA career. He was selected by the Denver Nuggets with the 13th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. He was traded later that same evening to the Utah Jazz. His rookie year he was named to the NBA All-Rookie team and won the NBA Slam Dunk contest and he has not looked back since.
In 2020 Donovan signed a 5-year, 195 million dollar extension with the Jazz. One of his first give back efforts was to donate 12 million dollars to help students and teachers at his old middle school in Connectcut. The school is where his mother was a teacher and he and his sister were students.
He did exactly what I had hoped the NBA-NFL-MLB and NHL pro athletes would do when I encouraged the likes of NBA and NFL Hall of Fame athletes, Dave Bing and Willie Wood to reach back into the community in 1967.
Donovan much like Uncle Billy and my brother Earl, he is an Independent Thinker. He came out of the box swinging.
I met Donovan through my mother’s cousin, Elaine Stone. She was living in Columbia, Maryland where she was celebrating her 100th birthday in June 2019. My wife Hattie and I had planned to attend the celebration, but my car had other plans–it refuse to go (start).
This was a first for me, a family member living to celebrate their 100th birthday. I immediately started to look for ways to make it up to cousin Elaine. First, I mailed her a check for one-hundred dollars and a new book (photo) I had just finished. The book was filled with photos of some the great athletes and sports media personalities I had interviewed on my sports talk shows down through the years. There was more I still wanted to do to celebrate her 100 years of life.
In November of 2019 I was planning to debut a segment of my exclusive never seen before one on one 1974 interview with Muhammad Ali. The Rumble in the Jungle with Ali’s stunning knockout of George Foreman was now a classic.
I received a call from cousin Elaine saying how much she enjoyed the book, and how I was not the only Super-Star in the family! I laughed and said, ‘Cousin Elaine you are definitey a Super-Star,’ Her response, ‘No not me, you have a cousin that plays in the NBA, Donovan Mitchell.’ I really didn’t have a clue to whom Donovan Mitchell was. I seldom if ever watched the NBA All-Star Game anymore and therefore, I missed the All-Rookie game and the slam dunk contest.
All these 2018 NBA showcases were the home of Donovan Mitchell during NBA All-Star Weekend. I did a little research and discovered this young brother was truly a rising star in the NBA.
Cousin Elaine had another nugget to drop on me. She revealed that Donovan Mitchell, Sr. was working in MLB with the New York Mets’ organization. More research, I discovered he had been a player in their Minor League system for almost a decade. He was hired by the Mets after his career move to the major leagues was stalled. I made a call to the Mets administrated office and asked to speak to Donovan Mitchell. I introduced myself as his cousin via cousin Elaine. He had not spoken to cousin Elaine who help to raise him in 28 years?
In November my Muhammad Ali documentary was ready to make its debut on the Big Screen 45 years after the fact. The vehicle would be the Miracle Theatre on Capitol Hill, Sunday November 24, 2019. Hattie and I decided to invite cousin Elaine and celebrate her 100th belated birthday. I called Donovan, Sr. and invited him to be a part of the celebration live or by memorex, he chose memorex.
The documentary debute of “I Remember Ali” celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Rumble in the Jungle was a smashing success. Cousin Elaine stole the show when I introduced her to the audience and gospel vocalist Robin Sugar Williams led us into singing “Happy Birthday” to her. MC Sylvia Traymore (comedian), Black Men in Americ.com (CEO and Publisher) Gary Johnson and Marc Clarke (W-H-U-R Radio) presented her with a bouquet of flowers. She enjoyed every moment and so did we. The video tribute from Donovan Sr. arrived late and I could not add it to the program.
VIDEO TRIBUTE FROM DONOVAN SR. IN HIS OWN WORDS 28 YEARS LATER!
“Hey Aunt Elaine, its Donovan, I just wanted to wish you a happy belated birthday—I know I am late please don’t hold that against me, but I love you and I miss you. I am wishing you the best. Wish I could have been there with you for your birthday, but I just been running around doing a lot of things. I know it has been awhile since I seen you and the family, but a lot of things have changed. I got my two-kids. I am still working with the NY Mets. I have been in professional baseball for 27 years. But all the love and support you guys gave me when I was growing up I am still chasing these dreams! I want to wish you the best, thank you for everything—and I hope you are well–take care of yourself.”
On February 28, 2020 I would meet my young cousin Donovan Mitchell, Jr. for the first time. The Utah Jazz would be visiting the Washington Wizards at the Capital One arena in downtown, DC. I almost blew the opportunity to meet the rising NBA star. I had mis-read the Wizard’s schedule. The game was played on a Sunday evening. Things got worse when I could not find Donovan on the floor or on the bench during the first half of the game. I was beginning to think he didn’t make the trip or had taken ill. During half-time I checked with one of the security people for the Wizards and discovered Donovan was being held out this game and was relaxing in the lockerroom. The Jazz coaching staff was right, they didn’t need him to beat the Wizards.
My friend Larry Law and I waited outside the lockerroom waiting for the all clear signal to enter. The first player in the door way to the lockerroom was Donovan. He was standing there and talking with a friend/fan with a big smile on his face. I waited my turn to introduce my self. Finally, I was able to say hello and tell him I was a long lost cousin via the James/Bell Family Tree. Like most of today’s young people he was not aware of his family history.
His broad smile never left his face during the conversation. I told him I had talked with his father in New York several days earlier giving him an update. I asked him if he was aware that he had a great-aunt living here in the area who had recently turned 100 years-old? His eyes got bigger with the response, “I had no idea!” You could tell he was a people person. There are times when young pro athletes experience his kind of early success early in their careers, they withdraw and are sometimes hard to find and harder to deal with.
I was disappointed he had no clue he had a 100-year old aunt Elaine living 40 minutes away from downtown DC, living in Columbia, Maryland. Her grandson and his cousin Deon living in Atlanta about his same age! Cousin Elaine is a big time sports fan, her son Deon’s father was a high school coach.
Cousin Elaine, celebrated her 102nd birthday with Donovan’s grandmother Tina in Florida now her new home. Tina drove to Columbia in June and drove cousin Elaine back to Florida to live with her. Maybe Donovan Sr. will find the time to introduce Donovan Jr. his mother, and sister to their aunt Elaine. She can then introduce him to his cousin Deon. This should be a no-brainer since aunt Elaine is now living under the same roof with his mother. Hopefully, 30 years later is not too late to meet your family!
If you want to know how Donovan Jr. got to this point as it relates to human rights, civil rights and his love for children–see our family tree.
You can also see link below on the Critical Race Theory https://www.proquest.com/openview/7c48c3007025c0862e2e871eb9e510fa/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=26506
THE JAMES/BELL FAMILY TREE- ART BY THE LATE GEORGE NOCK & POEM BY THE LATE POET MURRAY BROOKS–THE FRIENDS OF KIDS IN TROUBLE, INC.
FOOTNOTE: Utah Jazz in concert with Donovan Mitchell as it relates to his stand against banning Critical Race Theory curriculum in Utah schools.