James Madison Bell
Poet and political activist James Madison Bell was born on April 3, 1826, in Gallipolis, Ohio. He lived in his birthplace until he was seventeen, then moved to Cincinnati where he lived with his brother-in-law and trained to become a plasterer. Bell worked and attended Gilmore High School, an institution dedicated to the instruction of African American youth. Opened by the Reverend Hiram S. Gilmore, the high school was associated with Oberlin College. Little else is known about Bell’s early life, particularly his time in Gallipolis.
In August 1854, seven years after marrying and starting a family, Bell moved with his wife and children to Chatham, Ontario, Canada. He lived there and worked at his trade until 1860. While in Chatham, he served as secretary of the Chatham Vigilance Committee, an organization that aided and rescued enslaved people who were fleeing from bondage in the American South. Bell, who was a friend of the abolitionist John Brown, raised funds for the latter’s raid of Harpers Ferry and enlisted men to assist Brown in his rebellion.
In February 1860, Bell moved to San Francisco. While there, he was active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and supported efforts toward civil rights and equal education in California. He returned to Canada in the mid-1860s for a short time before moving with his family to Toledo, Ohio. In that decade, Bell published poems in various periodicals, including the San Francisco-based African American newspapers the San Francisco Elevator and Pacific Appeal, in addition to giving readings in major cities throughout the North and South. He was nicknamed the “Bard of Maumee,” for the Maumee River in Toledo.
Joan R. Sherman, professor emerita of English at Rutgers University, writes, in Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, that Bell was “the most steadfast champion of race progress from 1862 to 1900 […] while his lengthy odes trace the Black man’s history and contributions to America in peace and war.”
In 1872, Bell was elected to serve as a delegate representing Lucas County, Ohio, at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. He likely gained the party’s attention for his satire of Andrew Johnson, titled “Modern Moses, or ‘My Policy’ Man,” published around 1868.
In 1901, at the age of seventy-five, Bell collected a lifetime of verse in The Poetical Works of James Madison Bell (Press of Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1901). Bishop B. W. Arnett, who had insisted that Bell collect and publish his poems, penned the introduction.
James Madison Bell died on March 4, 1902, in Chicago, at the home of his son Andrew Bell. Bishop Arnett officiated the funeral.