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Officer Calvin B. Bell, from a 1952 newspaper photo.

A Century

of Change

African American History
in South Central
Pennsylvania:
the 20th Century

Officer Calvin B. Bell
Well-Known Altoona Policeman

The remarkable story below was written at the suggestion of Patricia Bell Holt, whose grandfather, Calvin B. Bell, was the first African American policeman in Altoona, and whose father, George Eugene Bell, was a Tuskegee Airman.  Ms. Holt sent numerous newspaper clippings she obtained from the staff of the Altoona Mirror, about her family over the years.  Blair County is not known for having a large and dynamic African American population, yet an article in the Altoona Mirror in 1992 listed a dozen African American individuals in the county's history who have made a great difference in their community, and in some cases, have achieved national fame.  Many, such as Officer Calvin Bell, worked diligently and quietly, with no greater intent than to be a good citizen and a good neighbor.  He might have been astonished that his life would be celebrated decades after his passing, not just as an African American role model, but for his dedication to the community in which he lived.

Calvin Brentz Bell (1889 - 1972)

There are few experiences in life more rewarding than knowing that you have had a positive impact on the lives of those around you. That knowledge is even more treasured when many of those people are schoolchildren with whom you come in contact every school day. Patrolman Calvin Bell, of Altoona, Pennsylvania, was one person who had such an effect. Serving nearly forty years on the Altoona police force and setting a record for most years served up to the time of his retirement, Bell was most remembered for his thirty-one years as traffic officer for the Miller Elementary School, at Margaret and Union Avenues, in that city.

Known to thousands of schoolchildren and local residents as "Cal," Officer Bell guarded the busy intersection of Union, Margaret and Broad Avenues, near the school, for about twenty-five years during dismissal hours. He served on the same corner so long that he eventually was guarding the children of those whom he had shepherded through the hazardous intersection a generation earlier. At a retirement dinner held in his honor in February 1954, Rev. Harry Flood, of the Mount Zion Baptist Church made reference to Bell's length of service by noting "He especially was an idol of many school boys and girls, because he has safely guarded them across the highway. These boys and girls who grew up, married, and had children sent them off to school knowing full well Cal would guard them well, too."

Officer Bell figured so prominently into the daily lives of these children that, in January 1952, when Altoona Mayor Walter Grove removed him from the corner to take a position as turnkey of the City Hall jail, the students flooded the Altoona Police station with telephone calls asking where he was. When told that Officer Bell would not be returning to the corner, all 179 students at Miller Elementary signed a lengthy note written on tablet paper thanking him for his many years of service, and sent it to him. It read: "Dear Mr. Bell, we miss you very much. It seems strange not to see you out on the corner directing traffic, for you have been protecting the children here for such a long time."

"We hope you are happy in your new job and that on your new job your health will be better. Maybe sometime soon you will come to see us. It would make us very happy to see you again." Bell referred to the thank-you note as "one of my dearest possessions," and honored the students' request to visit them by appearing the following month as the guest of honor at a Lincoln's Birthday assembly given by the school as a tribute to him. A highlight of the ceremony was the recitation of a poem composed for and about Officer Calvin Bell.

Officer Bell

This is a story I'd like to tell,
The simple story of Officer Bell,
Who for years has trod our city streets
With a heart as true as the heart that beats
In any breast; for Cal, you see,
Knows the use of kindness and courtesy.
So his friends are legion, his foes are few,
This smiling Knight of the Avenue.

Cal really has won renown
At one of the danger spots in town,
Where many a stout heart has been awed
By the rushing traffic of Union and Broad.
The Miller grade school stands nearby
And through this maelstrom he must try,
With whistle shrill and manner neat,
To blaze a trail for little feet.

It's a grueling task and the years are weaving
Aches and pains, so Cal is leaving
This spot, where smiling, he has won
The children's accolade, "Well done."
But hearts are sad and eyes grow dim;
Each hour, each day, they think of him
And to him, they this tribute bring
Remembering, remembering.

The danger in directing traffic was all too real, as Bell related in a 1952 interview. When asked about narrow escapes, he said there had been many, but the closest was during World War Two as he directed traffic through the intersection in front of the school. The driver of a speeding car ignored his effort to halt the vehicle, barely missing the patrolman as it sped recklessly by. Officer Bell joined in a pursuit of the vehicle, which, it turned out, had been stolen by escaped prisoners, and helped to capture them a short distance away.

He was not so lucky two decades earlier, when, while directing traffic around an accident during a blizzard, he was struck by a car and suffered a broken back. After recovering, he was assigned to the traffic division, where he assumed his role as guardian of the students of Miller Elementary. The old injury continued to bother him though, especially during winter, and when Mayor Grove offered him an inside position in 1952, after thirty-one years of traffic duty, he "gratefully accepted."

Born in Bedford, Pennsylvania on March 16, 1889, the son of George and Mary (Dangerfield) Bell, Calvin Brentz Bell came to Altoona with his parents when he was a young boy. His father was a steward at the Elks Lodge, but died when Calvin was in the eighth grade. Calvin quit school to find a job to support his family, and never resumed his schooling. He first found work as a janitor in a local department store, then served as a butler in the households of several wealthy Altoona citizens. On June 3, 1914 he was appointed warden of the Altoona city jail by Mayor Simon Walker, and worked twelve hours per day, seven days a week, on the graveyard shift of 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. Bell is believed to be the first African American to serve on the Altoona Police force.

It was not long until Bell was promoted to patrolman and wagon driver, having charge of a horse-drawn patrol wagon in the years before motorization. When Altoona bought its first automobile for use as a patrol car, a Ford Model-T Roadster, Bell became part of the first motorized patrols in that city. He told a reporter in 1963, "That old Ford was pretty cold in the wintertime with no heater and only leather side curtains with celluloid windows." Bell was also one of the first Altoona policemen assigned to plainclothes duty and had many criminal cases prior to the 1921 accident that broke his back and caused him to spend more than a month in the hospital.

Calvin Bell was a founding member of Mountain City Lodge 8, Fraternal Order of Police, in 1918, and was honored by fellow members for his long association with that organization in a special ceremony in 1962. Bell retired from the Altoona Police force on January 15, 1954, having completed nearly forty years of service. He devoted himself to gardening, taking particular pride in his roses, and to beautifying various burial sites around the city.

In 1963 Calvin and Grace (Russell) Bell celebrated fifty years of marriage, having been joined in matrimony on August 8, 1913 by the Rev. H. P. Anderson at the St. James A.M.E. Church in Atlantic City. The Bell's joined the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Altoona and Calvin served the church for many years as a trustee. Calvin was also active with the Arandale Elks and Masons. Grace R. Bell, born November 14, 1888 in New Albany, Indiana to Charles M. and Eugenia (Blockwell) Russell, was well known during her long residence in Altoona, where she was superintendent of the Bethel A.M.E. Sunday School, was an organizer and first president of the Booker T. Washington Community Center (the name was later changed to the 5th Ward Center), board member of the Y.M.C.A., member of the Order of the Eastern Star, and worked with the Community Welfare Council and the Altoona Community Chest organization.

The Bells' had three children, Jayne, Calvin Brentz, Jr., and Eugene George, and four grandchildren, including Patricia Bell Holt, who contributed the material for this story. Eugene George Bell distinguished himself in the Army Air Corps by graduating as a pilot and being commissioned a second lieutenant at Tuskegee Army Air Field on June 29, 1946. A member of the last class to be graduated from this historic field, Lt. Bell served during the war as a clerk in squadron B. Upon his graduation he was awarded his certificate by Lt. Col. George S. Roberts, one of the first five men who earned their wings there.

Grace R. Bell died June 6, 1966. Calvin B. Bell's health deteriorated after the passing of his wife, and he passed away on January 30, 1972, a resident of Valley View Home.

Sources:

Correspondence, Patricia Bell Holt to George F. Nagle, March 6, 2003

Altoona (Pennsylvania) Mirror:
"Two Anniversary Events In Month," June 26, 1939
"Lt. E. G. Bell Gets Pilot's Wings In AAF," July 18, 1946
"City Officer Gets Tribute From Children," January 29, 1952
"Miller School Pays Tribute To Officer Bell," February 12, 1952
"Local Couple Is Observing Anniversary," August 8, 1953
"City Police Plan Retirement Fete For Officer Bell," January 9, 1954
"Patrolman Calvin Bell Retires From Service," January 16, 1954
"Fellow Policemen Pay Tribute to Calvin R. Bell," February 5, 1954
"Bethel A.M.E. Congregation Honors Officer," February 27, 1954
"Two Veteran Police Officers Given Tribute," May 17, 1962
"Well-Known Couple to Mark Wedding Date," August 7, 1963
"Long Illness Proves Fatal," June 7, 1966
"Retired Police Officer Dies," January 31, 1972
"Plan Funeral Of Veteran Officer," February 2, 1972
"In Altoona, a denial that racism exists," February 23, 1992
"Trailblazers fill black 'Who's Who,'" Laura Malt, February 23, 1992

Altoona (Pennsylvania) Tribune:
"Calvin Bell To Retire From Police Force," November 7, 1953

Notes:

Afrolumens extends its sincere thanks to Patricia Bell Holt for her suggestions and help in researching this story.

 

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