As we observe Black History Month in February, we’d like to introduce you to African Americans in Iowa you should know.
Henry & Jennie Bell
Henry Bell (1811-1909)
Henry Bell was a notable freedom seeker born in Virginia who settled in Des Moines, Iowa and became a prominent figure in the local community. Henry Bell was born Henry Essick in Goose Creek, Virginia, on September 12, 1811. His mother and father were enslaved on a plantation owned by a man known as Colonel Essick, and Henry took his slaveholder’s last name as was customary. Colonel Essick gave Henry, aged 16, to his son-in-law, Tom Bobbins, who then moved to Decatur, Alabama. In Decatur, Henry met his wife “Aunty Bell,” who was enslaved on the Bell’s plantation. They married and had 16 children. After the death of his wife, Bobbins decided to move to Missouri. Henry refused to go, as it would mean separation from his wife and children at the Bell plantation. However, Bobbins was reportedly moved by Henry’s love for his family and sold him to another plantation owner in the area, James Henry, before moving to Farmington, Mississippi.
His time at James Henry’s plantation was marked by violence. He was often beaten by Henry for small infractions such as accusations of lying, and Bell remarked late in his life that Henry was “the meanest man that ever lived.” In October 1862, Bell lived on a plantation near Corinth, Mississippi, and found himself in the midst of the Second Battle of Corinth on October 3-4. His cabin was between Confederate and Union lines, meaning Bell often encountered wounded soldiers. He fed and cared for the sick and wounded soldiers, notably helping those from the Iowa Regiment.
Stories about Bell’s escape from slavery are varied. It is widely accepted that Bell left the South in 1864 and moved to Iowa. A Des Moines Register article dated May 7, 1909, stated that Bell was freed during the occupation of Tennessee by the Union Army, which implies that Bell was living in or near Tennessee between 1862 and 1864. Other claims include that Bell earned enough money to purchase his freedom or that he was freed by the Lincoln Proclamation and came to Des Moines after the end of the Civil War. Another article from May 12, 1909, stated that Bell “was not immune to the fire of freedom that was beginning to burn in the veins of the negroes” and left his plantation in Alabama. With his wife and children, they traveled on the Underground Railroad to Iowa. A Des Moines Tribune article also claims that Bell “ran away” to Iowa to be free and even states that he stopped at the Jordan House. It is possible that Bell was drawn to Iowa because of his encounter with the Iowa regiment during the Battle of Corinth.
Once in Iowa, Bell engaged in farming. He lived at 1004 Fremont Street, which was valued at $1200 in 1905 (around $30,000 now adjusted for inflation). He became a beloved and well-known member of the community. Bell attended events hosted by the Colored Old Settlers Association, including an annual picnic with Jefferson Logan and Isaac Brandt, who were respectively a freedom seeker and conductor on the Underground Railroad. Bell was often referred to as a “pioneer settler” of Des Moines and one of its oldest residents. An article from the Des Moines Register remarked that he was “one of the best known negroes in Iowa and at one time an important figure in colored politics.”
Jennie (Jane) Bell (1818-1903)
Jennie Bell (also commonly referred to as Jane) was a freedom seeker from Alabama who settled in Des Moines, Iowa, and became an important figure in the black community, especially in women’s suffrage circles. Bell was born on June 7, 1818, in Madison County, Alabama. Her mother was originally from Tennessee, while some sources claim that her father was either from Virginia or South Carolina. Sometime in the 1830s, she met Henry Bell, an enslaved man on a neighboring plantation in Decatur, Alabama, owned by Tom Bobbins. The two married in 1837 and would eventually have 16 children.
In 1864, during the Civil War, Bell and her husband fled the South with their children. Though the specific details are unknown, they traveled along the Underground Railroad, eventually making their way to Iowa. One source claims they traveled through the Jordan House, a notable stop along the Network to Freedom in West Des Moines. The family first settled in Dallas County, Iowa, before moving to Polk County in 1866. In 1875, they moved to 1004 Fremont Street, where the couple would remain until their deaths. In 1880, her occupation was listed in the Federal Census as “keeping house.”
Jennie Bell becomes a prominent figure in the black community of Des Moines. In January of 1888, the Polk County Woman Suffrage Association held a parlor meeting at Bell’s home. Both white and black women attended, many of them freedom seekers as well. Another suffrage meeting was held at her home a year later. Historian Leslie Schwalm notes that Bell was considered one of “the city’s leading black women,” and other sources refer to her as “one of our oldest and most highly esteemed ladies of Des Moines.” She was affectionately referred to as “Mother Bell,” while her husband Henry was called “Father Bell.”
In January of 1895, Jane was reunited with her brother, Salem Hampton, from whom she had been separated 50 years prior. The Iowa State Bystander noted, “As it was not unusual thing fifty years ago for colored people to be cruelly separated by the hand of slavery, it is not difficult for those acquainted with slave history to readily understand the situation… To this end may be accounted the separation of Father and Mother Bell and Salem Hampton fifty years ago.” Hampton was now living in Taylor, Texas, where he owned and operated a farm. Hampton visited the Bells at their Des Moines home, and the two were happily reunited.