Malcolm Bell Jr. (1913-2001)
Born in Savannah on March 11, 1913, Bell came by his writing and historical talents naturally. His grandfather, Frank Bell, was publisher of the Savannah Morning News; his father, Malcolm Bell, was a staff member of that paper; and his mother, Laura Palmer Bell, was a poet and historian who cofounded the Poetry Society of Georgia in 1923. Bell graduated from Savannah High School and in the early 1930s attended the University of North Carolina, where he was inspired by the progressive ideas of President Frank Porter Graham. He later attended the Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University, writing a thesis on philanthropy.
Bell married Muriel Barrow of Savannah, and the couple began preparing for careers as professional photographers.
Throughout these years, Bell became a driving force behind the Georgia Historical Society and the study of Lowcountry history. He served as president of the society from 1974 to 1978, published articles regularly in the Georgia Historical Quarterly, and was an eloquent advocate of its mission on the statewide level. In 1992 the society established in the Bells' honor the Malcolm and
Bell was passionate about the black experience in the Lowcountry. After writing Savannah, Ahoy! (1959), an account of the SS Savannah, which in 1819 became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and scripting the text for a pictorial history of the city, Savannah (1977), he focused his attention on the issue of slavery. Bell's major study, Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (1987), grew out of a paper on a slave sale in 1859 in which Pierce Mease Butler, spendthrift grandson of the formidable Major Pierce Butler, sold 436 slaves at a location outside of Savannah to settle gambling debts. Bell traces the impact of slavery on the lives
In 1978 Bell was awarded the Oglethorpe Medal by the Savannah Chamber of Commerce for his many contributions to the civic, cultural, and business life of the community. In 1982 he received the Freedom Fund Award from the Savannah chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his work with the citizens committee during the 1960s. In 1991 Governor Zell Miller presented Bell with the Governor's Award in the Humanities.
A modest, unassuming person, Malcolm Bell Jr. earned praise from widely different quarters for his commitment to the African American heritage in Georgia, for the scholarship he produced despite a lack of professional training, and for his role in promoting a forward-looking Savannah at a time when such a phrase could elicit opposition.
Malcolm Bell Jr., Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).
Savannah Unit, Georgia Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (1940; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).
Paul M. Pressly, The Savannah Country Day School
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.