John Brown Bell, civic leader and businessman, was born in December 1858 in Georgia to slave parents. When he was only six months old, he and his mother were sold away from his father to a family in Texas. Bell went on to live the remainder of his life in Houston. He received three and a half years of schooling before being sent to work in a grocery store. By 1884 Bell had purchased the grocery store and began a career buying and selling real estate in Houston.
On July 31, 1900, Bell married V’Nora Allen, a teacher, active clubwoman, and fellow member of the Antioch Baptist Church. They did not have children but spent their lives in service to the African-American community of Houston. During Bell’s successful tenure in Houston, he made numerous civic contributions. In 1907 he was on a committee that founded the first African-American library in Houston, and in 1914 he acquired funds for the Colored Federated Charities. Also in 1914, Bell donated money to settle a tax bill that saved Emancipation Park. As a member of the Executive Committee of the National Negro Business League, of which Booker T. Washington was president, Bell strengthened his national connections to the greater African-American community. In fact, Booker T. Washington resided with the Bells while on a trip to Houston. Bell spent twenty-five years as Master of Solomon Lodge of the United Brothers of Friendship. He was a member of Masonic Magnolia Lodge No. 2 and served as Chancellor Commander of the True Friends Lodge of the Knights of Pythias.
Over his career, Bell purchased fifty rental houses in addition to the grocery store and accumulated more $100,000 worth of property by his death. Heralded as the biggest African-American taxpayer in Texas, Bell is known to have said, “Seize opportunity and buy lands.” The mansion resided in by the Bells was considered palatial—with a library, double parlors, and a spacious entrance hall. After a lifetime of important accomplishments, John Brown Bell passed away in Houston on November 4, 1917, and is buried at the Olivewood Cemetery, the oldest cemetery for African Americans in the city. He is buried next to his wife V’Nora who followed him in death on February 18, 1928.
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Betty T. Chapman, “Eminent ancestors rest in peace at Olivewood cemetery,” Houston Business Journal (www.bizjournals.com/houston/stories/2008/10/27/story15.html?page=all), accessed October 9, 2013. Audrey Y. Crawford, “‘To protect, to feed, and to give momentum to every effort’: African American Clubwomen in Houston, 1880–1910,” Houston Review, Vol. 1, No. 1. The Crisis, Vols. 15–18, edited by W.E.B. DuBois. Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock, eds., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 12: 1912–14 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1982). Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners in the South, 1790–1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1997).
Activism and Social Reform
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Patricia Prather and Jennifer Bridges,
“Bell, John Brown,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed July 01, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
October 22, 2013
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: