Students from the Philippines wanted to know “When are you bringing Ben’s to the Philippines?”
Students from Bristol, England–next stop Capitol Hill to meet the politicians
When legendary musician Quincy Jones produce and directed the song “We Are the World” for charity in 1985 the guest artist participating were a Who’s Who of the music world. The goal was to raise money for the famine taking place in Ethiopia where little children and their parents were literally starving to death. Quincy send out an SOS to all divas (male and female) and the response was nothing short of amazing. The only requirement for participation, “Check ego at the door.”
When Ben and Virginia Ali open Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 the diners were a Who’s Who of entertainers, politicians, sports personalities and everyday people in Black America. They could be found on the U Street corridor aka Black Broadway on any given evening but the weekends were always buzzing.
I remember, I was in middle school when I first heard of “Black Broadway.” On the weekends my mother and her sisters, brothers, cousins and friends from our NE Parkside Housing Project would meet at my house. They would all be dressed up (clean as chittlings) and I would ask “Mommy where are you guys going?” And her response would be ‘We are going downtown to party!’ I was still in the dark because I thought downtown was by the White House located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, but I later discovered that the U Street NW corridor was considered downtown in the black community. In our community there was a bus company called Capitol Transit and on Sundays three would be allowed to ride on a pass to close out the week. Someone in the group would get a pass from their parents so that we could joy ride to what we thought was downtown. To get all of our crew on the bus we would open one of the windows and hand the pass out to three other guys at each stop on the route out of the projects. Sometimes there would be 15 to 20 guys on the ride. The bus driver was not fooled but we never coursed him any problems and he looked the other way. Sometimes he would act like our tour guild pointing out the landmarks.
The Matriarch and hero of the Tyler/Bell family, Amy Tyler Bell aka Grandma Bell and her grand-children. Standing L-R cousin, Carole, brothers HB, Earl, Bobby. Next to Grandma, cousin, Ronnie and cousin Tommy
The Black Broadway crew of NE in photo before heading down to the U Street corridor for a party over here and a party over there. Mommy B standing center in the back with white pearls around her neck.
The bus would take us down in front of the White House which was across the street from Lafayette Square. The driver would make a U turn and bring us back to the projects and that is why I thought was downtown was by the White House. The U Street NW corridor “Black Broadway” was downtown to my mother. There was a ‘Broadway’ in New York City but black folks were never made to feel comfortable there. They were treated like ‘Outsiders.’ The more things change the more they remain the same.
In the 40s and 50s the U Street corridor aka Black Broadway was where the black community let its hair down on the weekends. There you could walk shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest entertainers, politicians and sports personalities in America. They included, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dick Gregory, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Pigmeat Markam, Redd Foxx, etc.
My brothers and I spend our early years with Grandma Bell. The closest we got to “Black Broadway” was our place of worship, Mount Airy Baptist Church. The church was located in walking distant of the U Street corridor at North Capitol and L Streets, NW, but my brothers, cousins and I were never out of sight of Grandma Bell on Sundays. Our leisure time was spend visiting the sick and shut-in at the housing project Sursum Quarters surrounding the church and on Wednesdays we would sometimes visit Freeman’s Hospital. My community involvement is not by accident.
The Bell/Tyler family settled in Washington, DC in the Early 1800s my Great-Grandfather Alfred Johnson Tyler laid the first brick to build Mount Airy in 1893 and was named Pastor in 1906 and served in that capacity until he went home to be with the Lord in 1936. My Great-Uncle the Rev. Earl Tyler was his successor until he went home to be with the Lord in 1958. The Tyler House a senior citizen complex two blocks north of the church is named after him.
My brother Bobby, Earl and I attended Burville Elementary School together and church would become our home away from home. It was not unusual for us to be in church three to four days a week and all day Sunday. My Great-Uncle the Rev. Earl Tyler could preach like ML King, and sing like Marvin Sapp. Grandma Bell played the organ and directed the choir of heavenly voices that included, my aunts and uncles. Every Sunday was a revival—this was real church. On Sundays if you were 5 minutes late there would be standing room only.
In the 50s my brother Earl and I moved to the housing project with our mother Mattie Bell aka Mommy B and Bobby the oldest stayed with Grandma Bell. In 1955 against all odds I entered Spingarn High School. My middle school Principal, Mr. William B. Stinson had predicted to my mother after one of her frequent visits, he said, “Mrs. Bell you are not going to have to worry about Harold too much longer, I doubt if he lives to get to high school.”
Our father Alfred was a “Dead Beat Dad” in every sense of the word. The Temptations described him to a Tee with with their classic vocal ‘Poppa Was a Rolling Stone.’ My heroes growing up were not black men or black athletes, my heroes were black women, my grandmother, mother and my aunts.
My mother and grandmother’s efforts to keep me and Earl from going to hell in a hurry was to no avail. We continued to act like dam fools outside of the church and our home. Earl had turned to yoke robbery and hitting cash registers on the weekends on the busy H Street corridor in NE (now Capitol Hill). I would join him and his crew on a couple of outings, but it was too much drama for me. I decided to return to carrying groceries on the weekends at the Safeway. In 1957 thanks to one of my neighbors and homies from the projects, Jody Waugh, I discovered Burning Tree Golf Course. He convinced me I would triple my income at the golf course and I did. It was here I met my mentors, Petey Greene and President Richard M. Nixon.
In the meantime, Mommy B aka Mattie Bell got fed up with her monthly Relief/Welfare check she was receiving. She thought she could do better so she started to put her cooking skills with her specialty fried chicken (put Colonel Sanders to shame), chittlings, home-made potato salad and cakes and pies to good use. She sold dinners on the weekends. On Friday evenings family and friends would be lined up outside of our door sitting on the porch and curve waiting for the dinners. This led her to selling bootleg liquor and having card games (piddy pat and poker). She cut ten cents on every dollar won. She was hitting the number so much, the book maker for our housing project, Mr. Billy Jackson turned over his territory to her and gave her a cut of the book. Mommy B was the projects’ Donald Trump long before Donald Trump and Atlantic City. Somewhere during that era my youngest brother William Sterling aka Billy aka Puddin aka Tyrik was born.
Almost like any success in the black community and especially financial success, envy and jealousy were just a step behind. My mother’s Achilles Heel, was a big heart and she never learned to say, “No” to anyone who needed a helping hand. Suddenly, the cops started to raid our house on the weekends taking my mother out in handcuffs while Earl and I sit on the steps crying. She would stop and kiss us and say, “I will be back in time to take you to church in the morning” and she would. The raids would happen at least one a month. She would move the card games and the bootleg liquor to other locations in the neighborhood. But the cops had a snitch in the community and they would know her every move.
Trying to stay one step ahead of the cops and the snitch, plus three active boys would prove to be a little too much for her. Mommy B had a nervous breakdown in 1957 and was institutionalized at St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital. My younger brother was taken in my our next door neighborhood Ms. Winnifred Powell and her sons, Sonny and Gaylord, Earl was shipped off to the reform school for boys. I was homeless and left to fend for myself. I slept in parked cars until Doretha my mother’s cousin found me sleeping in her car one morning. It was around that time I was coming into my own as an impact athlete at Spingarn High School, meaning I could win or lose a game for my team. When the game was on the line I wanted the ball in my hands. This just give me the ball attitude kept me in hot water and sometimes in the doghouse with my teammates and coaches. I cost my baseball teammates a city championship when Coach Leo Hill kicked me off the team for selfish and reckless behavior on the field of play. Basketball coach Rev. William Roundtree gave up on me when I decided to change my role as primary defender to primary shooter and football coach, Dave Brown locked me on the bus at half-time in a game against rival Phelps for selfish and unreasonable behavior. The team won without me, 6-0 on a 63 yard punt return by QB Donald Wills. The only thing that saved me from the mean streets was an apology to my teammates and the coaching staff on the team bus. Coach Brown would take charge of my life from there and the rest is community and sports media history.
1958 Named first team All-High Wide Receiver DC Public Schools (Spingarn High School)
1959 Accepted athletic scholarship to Winston-Salem State University–saved my life.
1965 hired by United Planning Organization (UPO) as a Neighborhood Worker with Petey Greene and H Rap Brown
1968 In the forefront of the riots in the U Street corridor. Married Hattie Thomas and found non-profit Kids In Trouble, Inc
1978 Pioneering radio show Inside Sports picked number one talk show by the Washington Post
1988 Harold Bell Sounds Off Washington Post publish front page story on the lack of equal opportunity for blacks in sports broadcasting
Civil Rights Up Close & Personal:
In college in Winston-Salem, NC (1960) when students from North Carolina A & T staged restaurant sit-ins
In college when 14 year old Emit Till was murdered for whistling at a white woman
In college when Civil Rights advocate Megar Evers was murdered by a shotgun blast in his driveway
In DC and in attendance for the 1963 March on Washington and Rev. King’s, I have a Dream Speech
In DC on September 1963 when 4 little black girls were blown up in their church
In 1965 I was hired by United Planning Organization (UPO) as Neighborhood Worker with Petey Green and H Rap Brown
In 1968 I was on the front lines of the riots on the U Street corridor (Roving Leader DC Recreation Department)
Looking back and at today’s race relations in America it makes one wonder are we regressing?
Quincy Jones was 19 years old when he made an observation as it related to racism in America in 1941. He was traveling with band leader Lionel Hampton to Europe, he said, “It turned me upside down, altering my view of racism in my country.”
‘It gave you some sense of perspective of past, present and future. I took the myopic conflict between black and white in the United States and put it on another level because I saw the turmoil between the Armenians and the Turks, and the Cypriots and the Greeks, and the Swedes and the Danes, and the Koreans and the Japanese. Everybody had these hassles, and you saw it was a basic part of human nature, these conflicts. It opened my soul, it opened my mind.’ What a sad commentary on the human race.
Quincy forgot to throw Native Americans and European Americans into the mix
It has often been said “If you don’t know your history you are bound to repeat it.” AME Church in Charleston, S. C. June 2015 nine died!
Thanks to my heroes, Grandma Bell, Mommy B, Ms. Winnifred Powell, Coach Dave Brown, Coach Clarence ‘Bighouse’ Gaines and last but not least my wife Hattie T, 1965 marks 50 years of working in the U Street corridor with youth gangs and at-risk children. In the end all the glory goes to God.
“Until the lion is able to tell his story, the hunter will always get the glory”