By Edward Henderson
San Diego is ripe with stories of greatness, trailblazing and achievement within the African American community. Many of these tales, however, go untold. Such is the case with Helen Lee, the first African American woman to work in a San Diego courtroom. Appointed in the tumultuous racial climate of 1940’s, Lee made it a point to help usher in and mentor others to follow her lead. Her son Thomas Bell was one of those individuals who answered the call of her example and made history of his own.
Lee was the only African American to take the civil service test in 1947. She finished with the highest score out of her class and was personally requested by Chief Judge John J. Brennan. As the court clerk, anything on the docket had to go through her. She then met with the judge to go through what the schedule was for the day. Lee also did a lot of mentoring of young black attorneys, instructing them on how to properly file paperwork and navigate the court system in the right way.
Despite her success and intelligence, Lee wasn’t immune to the racial climate of the time. She was forced to eat lunch in her car every day due to the segregated restaurants in the area. When other white clerks noticed this, however, they began to join her for lunch in the car and turned it into a ritual. Lee also received support and praise from many judges due to her work ethic and proficiency.
“My mother is a very modest woman,” said Bell. “But I’m just overwhelmed with pride. She did something that gave me the impetus to achieve as well.”
Lee’s influence didn’t just inspire Bell to achieve, it also got him out of some tough situations growing up. While he was in college at San Diego State on a basketball scholarship, Bell had a sports car. While testing it out to see how fast it went, he was pulled over by a police officer. Bell apologized for speeding and asked if the officer knew his mother. Fortunately for Bell he did and mentioned she’d helped him out a lot with paperwork. The officer ended up letting him go.
“You always hear about the opposite side about us getting stopped. In this instance I realized how well liked my mother was and how big it was for me in that moment.”
Bell took his shot at making history when he became a finalist for a classified personnel examiner position with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Like his mother, Bell finished in the top of the recruiting class in all parts of testing and interviews. Undenounced to him, Bell was the first African American to make it that far.
“When I went up for the final interview, I’m sitting there waiting with the final five people,” said Bell. “As I’m sitting there, I see all of these black ladies bringing a sheet of paper back to the proctor. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when I was selected, one of the ladies asked if I noticed all of them. She said the word went around that there was a black guy who was #1 on the list. They’d never seen an AA in that position.”
After working in Corporate America as director of new franchise development for International Industries, Bell returned to education as assistant superintendent of LA Unified School District.
“I had the right image of leadership and of pursuing things that hadn’t been pursued not even realizing I’d be the first.”
Bell currently lives in Los Angles while making frequent trips down to San Diego to help care for his mother who is 93 and a devoted member of Bethel Baptists Church since 1947.