Andrew J. Bell, Jr. was born in Providence in September 1907, the son of Andrew J. and Beatrice J. Bell. After graduating from Classical High School, Bell studied Business Administration at Bryant College and graduated from the New England Institute of Mortuary Science in Boston.
In 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, the twenty-five year old Bell established the Bell Funeral Home in a storefront on Westminster Street to serve the needs of the growing black community in the greater Providence area. Five years later, he moved the business to former Israel Mason Mansion at 571 Broad Street and remained there until his retirement from the funeral business in 1972.
Andrew Bell’s entrepreneurial talent as a local black business leader was more than matched by his incessant passion to secure equal rights for all members of his community. Towards this end, Bell and several colleagues established the Urban League of Rhode Island in 1939.
During World War II, the Urban League engaged black civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall to fight unfair labor practices targeting blacks who worked in the Kaiser Shipyard at Field’s Point, and it carried out a threatened boycott of Narragansett Brewery products to end discrimination there.
In the late 1950s the league gained national prominence in its fight to end segregation at the Roger Williams Housing Project. Bell worked equally hard to secure admission for whites at another public housing development Codding Court”a project designated by the Providence Housing Authority as a “Negro only” development.
In 1968 Bell helped to establish the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) to help train minorities, particularly in the construction trades, and helped to develop University Heights as an innovative, mixed-income, integrated community. He also assumed the presidency of the Urban League and headed the Rhode Island Urban Project, a program carried out with many of Rhode Island’s major corporations to promote fair employment practices and opportunities for minorities.
During his lifetime Bell received numerous awards, wrote a book about his experiences in Providence, and earned two honorary doctorates. He died on June 4, 2000 at the age of ninety-two.
Through his perseverance in the face of adversity, his strong sense of community, and his lifelong commitment to equal rights for all, Andrew Bell, Jr. simply represents the best that Rhode Island has to offer and richly deserves his place among our Hall of Fame recipients.