Perra S. Bell, Towson University history teacher

  • Perra S. Bell
Perra S. Bell (handout, Baltimore Sun )
October 11, 2014|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | The Baltimore Sun

Perra S. Bell, a former Towson University history teacher who was a lifelong crusader for civil rights, died Sept. 26 at Physicians Regional Medical Center in Naples, Fla., of complications from a fractured hip. The former Baltimore resident was 95.

"She was such a character and had such influence promoting racial equality in so many ways, but not in a flamboyant way," said her daughter, Jane Bell Kiester of Marco Island, Fla. "She was feisty and stubborn to the max."

The daughter of George Somers, a salesman, and Florence Somers, a homemaker, Perra Somers was born and raised in East Orange, N.J., where she graduated in 1936 from East Orange High School.

She then took a job as a secretary in the social studies department at New York University, and after leaving that job, became the secretary to the Sunday editor of The New York Times.

She worked full time during the day and attended NYU at night, earning her bachelor's degree in English literature.

In 1938, she met her future husband, James Frederick Bell, who at the time was working at NYU as a librarian while studying for his bachelor's degree in mathematics. They married in 1940.

They moved to Baltimore in 1945, when he joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Engineering. They later settled in a home on West 40th Street.

Mr. Bell, who was an internationally recognized expert in the diverse fields of solid mechanics, surgical pumps and the physics of music, died in 1995.

In 1958, Mrs. Bell earned a master's degree in history from Hopkins and joined the faculty of what is now Towson University, where she taught European and American history for more than 20 years.

"She brought history alive with her eloquent lectures and enthusiasm for the subject," her daughter said.

She persuaded the history department chair to let her initiate a full-year course on African-American history.

Mrs. Bell's interest in the plight of African-Americans began early in her life and was reinforced when she learned the pool in East Orange High School could only be used by black students at certain times.

She persuaded several white friends to challenge this act of discrimination and went swimming with the African-American students during their appointed time. Rather than integrate the pool, school authorities and East Orange city officials decided to close it.

"She always bristled at such bigotry and was always fighting the injustice of bigotry," her daughter said.

After moving to Baltimore, she "witnessed myriad personal discourtesies or pervasive rebuffs experienced by African-Americans in daily life," said her daughter.

Mrs. Bell was shocked that African-Americans could only sit in movie theater balconies, were forbidden to try on clothes or open a charge account in a department store, and were refused service in restaurants and bars.

She walked picket lines protesting segregation in city public schools and canceled her credit at department stores that refused service to blacks. She urged the mayor to appoint black officers to the all-white police force.

"I simply could not understand having unjustifiable attitudes toward a whole group of people just because they had ancestry from Africa," Mrs. Bell told the Towson University alumni magazine in a 2013 article.

Mrs. Bell and her husband lived in Bologna, Italy, for a year while he gave lectures in his field at the University of Bologna.

During that time, a former colleague of Mrs. Bell's from Towson invited the couple to lecture at the University of Ghana in Accra in their respective fields. Mrs. Bell lectured on W.E.B. Du Bois, the American civil rights activist, sociologist and historian.

For 50 years, Mrs. Bell, an inveterate collector of books, amassed a library of more than 7,000 volumes that illustrated her wide interests in world literature, history, philosophy and science.

Nearly 4,000 of the books, her daughter said, were devoted to African-American history and culture. She willed the collection to the Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville, Ga., her daughter said.

"She was pleased at the thought that, after her death, her books that meant so much to her in life will be used and read by the next generation of students and teachers," her daughter said.

She was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, and the Zora Neale Hurston Society.

Mrs. Bell, who sold her home in 1995 and moved to Gainesville, Fla., to be near her daughter, moved to Marco Island when her daughter and son-in-law retired.

Through the years, Mrs. Bell remained in contact with her students from her days at Towson.

"She changed the lives of so many African-American and white students, and when she died, one of her Towson students was holding her hand, and I was holding the other," said Ms. Kiester.

At Mrs. Bell's request, there will be no funeral.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Bell is survived by three grandsons. Her son, Christopher Bell, was killed in 1969 while serving in the Army in Vietnam.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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