The Buford that so many enjoy today took over 100 years to build. It was built by the generations of families who settled in the area and called it home. They built businesses, held public office, built churches and taught the area children. These families are the cornerstones of the Buford community and are responsible for making Buford the sought after place it is in the 21st century.
One such family is the Bell family.
The Bell family came to Buford in the 1940s when Joel and Elsie Bell moved into the city from Bethlehem, Ga. Joel and Elsie quickly established themselves and raised their 10 children in Buford. Descendants of Joel and Elsie still call Buford home to this day.
The family history of the Bells is a rich one that they can trace back to their roots in Africa. Members of the family have records that tell the exact ship that their ancestors arrived in America aboard and who they were sold to. Once their ancestors were emancipated, they settled in a self-sufficient African American community in Florida called Rosewood.
Mary and Louvenia Bell with fellow American Legion 534 Auxiliary members. Photo courtesy of Valencia Wiley.
Rosewood was a thriving African American community located just southwest of Gainesville, Florida. In January 1923, the Rosewood Massacre took place in which a white woman was allegedly attacked by a black drifter. An angry mob of several hundred whites hunted down the blacks and burned nearly every structure in Rosewood in retaliation. Surviving residents of Rosewood were said to have hidden in the nearby swamps for days until they escaped to other towns. None of the former residents went back to Rosewood and were never compensated for their land.
Members of the Grenard Watson School’s band and guard. Photo courtesy of Valencia Wiley.
The Bells left Florida after the massacre and made their way to north Georgia first settling around Bethlehem, Winder, Social Circle and Monroe areas. It was in the 1940s that the Buford Bells were established when Joel and Elsie moved to Buford.
Joel and Elsie, along with their children have been pillars of their community. The Bell family have contributed to the Buford community and beyond. Their world has always centered around their family and faith. The Bells are a large family with Joel and Elsie having ten children and those children continued the family lineage.
The men of the Bell family have been seen as leaders of the community. They have been deacons of their churches, builders, entrepreneurs, educators and someone everyone in the community could trust. They would build homes and rent those homes out. The Bell brothers would do whatever they could to help others in the community out when they could. They would often allow people to offer trade to pay for their rent and other business between the Bells and members of the community.
“My granddaddy (Tillman Bell) had a saying, ‘If you can’t do anything to help anybody, don’t do anything to hurt them,’” said Greg Bell, great-grandson of Joel Bell. “I think that within the Buford community, the Bell family is most remembered for their big hearts.”
“Richness for them was more about faith, service, love and family, so they were rich,” said Courtney Bell, great granddaughter of Joel Bell.
Son of Joel Bell, Robert is honored with a street named after him. Photo by Alicia Payne
One of the more well known contributions the Bell family has made to the Buford community is their contributions to the education of the local children. One of Joel’s sons, Robert Bell was the second African American to sit on the school board for Buford City Schools. The city honored him by naming the road where Buford Academy and Buford Senior Academy are located, Robert Bell Parkway.
In addition to sitting on the school board, Robert was on the planning and zoning board for the city. He was also a founding member and director emeritus of People’s Bank and Trust.
Louvenia Bell’s niece, Joyce Maynard marries Frank Wiley in 1962 after first having met while teaching school. Photo courtesy of Valencia Wiley.
Robert’s wife, Louvenia’s family were also big contributors to the Buford education system. Joyce Wiley, Louvenia’s niece, taught elementary school from 1962 until her retirement in 2002. Her husband Frank Wiley was also an educator and helped oversee the integration of the African American school, Grenard Watson School with Buford High School. He became the first African American principal at Buford Grammar School until his death in 1976.
Frank Wiley was the first African American principal of Buford Grammar School. Photo courtesy of Valencia Wiley.
Several Bells were military veterans including Joel’s sons, Robert and Tillman. Tillman married Mary Howell of Duluth and together they had seven sons that the locals referred to as the “Bell Boys.” Tillman was a builder and he started the Bell Brothers Construction company. He may have been a large man but he was a quiet, gentle giant who would let nothing come between him and spending time with his loved ones.
The legacy the Bell family has made in Buford and beyond has been a testament to their upbringing and strong family bond. They have forged productive members of society that quite literally helped to build Buford. The stories that have been passed down from generation to generation are so rich and plentiful that one article can only scratch the surface of what the Bell family has contributed to their community.
Footnote: The North Gwinnett Voice sat down with members of the Bell family on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, and recorded the many memories of the family so that future generations will be able to learn about this family’s many contributions to the Buford community and beyond. Members of the Bell family present were (in order by generation) Greg Bell and Joyce Wiley; Christal Bell, Greg Trumayne Bell and Rashad, Courtney Bell, Valencia Wiley and Karen Stokes; and Ansley Terry, Gregory Trey Bell, Carson Bell and Daniel Bell.
FEATURED PHOTO: Members of the Bell family gather at the Buford Community Center on Jan. 22, 2023. Photo by Alicia Payne