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Civil Rights Act: Colorado Springs woman's prejudices evaporate through experiences

By Carol McGraw Updated: July 2, 2014 at 1:59 pm 0

Lucy Bell was not an avid protest marcher during the civil rights demonstrations that ignited a nation in the mid-1960s. But prejudices she learned in childhood dissolved as her life's journey included teaching minority students, marrying a black man against her parents' wishes and writing books and articles to preserve the history of people of color.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Bell doesn't remember that day. "In those days I was overwhelmed by first-graders."

Born in North Dakota, Bell attended Minot State Teaching College and in 1961 received a certificate to teach. (She later received a bachelor's degree from the University of North Dakota and a master's degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder).

Her first job was in New Town, N.D., home of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

"I had grown up in the state where there was prejudice against Indians. That is how prejudice usually works. You are prejudiced against those around you."

When she began teaching, she says, "I thought I wouldn't have Indian students. I thought they were in Indian schools." But the school where she was hired had a high number of Native Americans.

"I was 19 and that was where my sense of understanding of injustice was born. I adored the kids and saw how wrong racism was as I learned about their culture."

She was shocked to learn that the fertile land they had inhabited for hundreds of years had been taken from them and flooded by a dam and reservoir project in the Missouri River basin. The elders told of how they were in tears when they went to Washington, D.C., in 1949 to testify to save their homes. But hundreds of families from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes and others were moved to a barren area given the name New Town.

"It's all under water now. It was cultural genocide," Bell says. They could not farm or make a living, so there is much poverty and many turned to alcohol.

Bell moved to Colorado in 1964 and taught at Widefield Elementary School. She moved to Helen Hunt Elementary School in Colorado Springs School District 11 in 1969 because she wanted to teach at a minority school. It was 80 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic.

It was there she met Oliver Bell, a black physical education teacher and coach. Oliver, who died in 2002, had grown up in the Springs and had experienced segregation but said little about it, preferring to tell stories about the happier moments, she says. He had labored at jobs then available to minorities - he shined shoes, worked as an orderly in a TB sanitarium, was a waiter and train porter. He received a scholarship to the University of Northern Colorado for two years, served in the Marines and returned to college to get his degree.

After three years as colleagues at Helen Hunt they married in 1972 - just five years after the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia overturned the last of the laws banning interracial marriage between black and whites. In an essay about her marriage, Bell quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren: "The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry or not marry a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state."

Lucy Bell's parents refused to accept Oliver, while his parents welcomed her. But her white minister told her, "Marry him. My in-laws didn't like me either."

It wasn't until the Bells' two children were born that her family accepted Oliver.

She and Ollie had a good life, she says, but in earlier days it was not always easy. There were stares on the street. Once they were in a restaurant with their son and daughter, then 7 and 5. A white couple were at a nearby table and one said loudly, "'I feel sorry for the kids.'"

Bell recalls, "I just went numb all over. But Ollie just said, 'Let it go.'"

Now retired from teaching, Bell gives lectures and is collecting and writing histories about the blacks who were here since the founding of the city, so that their stories will not die. "People don't realize the rich history of the black community of Colorado Springs.

"The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is a good time for everyone to look at the past and see where we are today and where we should go from here."

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