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San Diego State honors Charles Bell, a pioneering Black scholar

The Charles B. Bell Pavilion on a weekday looks out on a plaza filled with students talking on their phones, rolling by on skateboards and walking into the food court. This used to be called East Commons.

But last month San Diego State University (SDSU) renamed the area in honor of Charles Bell. He was a mathematician and the first tenured Black professor at SDSU.

Charles Bell died in 2010 but his widow and three of his kids showed up at a dedication to cut a ribbon, making their father’s name an official part of the campus landscape.


“He was a pioneer. He was a trailblazer. He was someone who contributed to mathematics in strong and creative ways,” said Tonika Green, an associate vice president at SDSU and the university's first Charles Bell Scholar.

“People might wonder who he is. But now that it’s institutionalized, and on a building it gives people the power now to find out who he was and the impact he had on campus,” Green said.

A smart kid from New Orleans

Charles Bell was born in New Orleans in 1928 and he quickly got started learning and loving mathematics.

How quickly?


He enrolled in Xavier University, a historically Black college at age 14. He earned his masters degree from Notre Dame by age 19. But he didn’t get his doctorate until he was 24. Bell’s daughter, Karen Bell Shirley, said there was a problem with his first PhD that he didn’t see until it was done.

“A man in — I think it was Germany — had written his thesis on the exact same topic,” she said. “And because the topics had to be unique and this man preceded my father by a couple of months, they couldn’t give my father his PhD. He had to go back to the starting board and find another topic that was unique.”

Bell told her that delayed his PhD approval by two years.

Charles Bell and his wife Mary on their honeymoon in Mexico City. 1953.
Charles Bell family
Charles Bell and his wife Mary on their honeymoon in Mexico City. 1953.

Charles Bell was the author of 40 academic papers, many of them focused on statistics. His son, CB Bell, said his father once told him that your statistical chances of winning the lottery, by buying a ticket, were the same as your chances of winning the lottery by not buying a ticket.

CB and his sister said their dad required a lot of them when they were kids.

“When I was in high school, he enrolled me in a summer class in geology at the University of New Orleans. And that was from 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, five days a week. And then my sister and I and my best friend took calculus from him from 5 to 8 p.m., five nights a week all summer,” CB said.

Charles Bell’s career was constantly on the move. He left SDSU after six years to teach at Tulane University and the University of Michigan to name just two.

He taught math overseas at many institutions, including the University of Madrid and Göttingen University in Germany. He insisted his four kids learn the local language, wherever they lived and — as CB put it — threw them in local schools and expected them to cope. Bell returned to SDSU in 1981 and retired there 11 years later.

CB adds that one ever-present home furnishing, no matter where they lived, was a chalkboard.

“Everywhere we lived I think my mom was the one who went out and procured the chalkboards, and we would usually get two of them,” he said. “It was just like in a school and sometimes he’d be teaching us stuff and sometimes he’d be in there just rattling off what looked like some sort of mad genius formulas!”

A Black pioneer in academics

Charles Bell’s career was remarkable in part because he was Black. He went to Notre Dame because they wouldn’t admit a Black graduate student at Louisiana State University in the late 1940s. Even though Notre Dame admitted him, CB says his father could not live in the dorms because of his skin color.

Bell found places to live in the Black community near campus in South Bend, Indiana. CB said it was something for which he was grateful his entire life.

CB said his father’s mathematical thinking allowed him, in a way, to disregard racism, because it made no sense. It helped, he said, that Charles Bell was always the smartest person in the room.

“For him it was, ‘You do the stuff and you get the reward.’ You give the proof and you have the proof. You can’t decide that we don’t like it because you’re Black. That’s not part of the thing. I think that just never entered his mind,” CB said.

But Karen Bell said her father was quite aware of race. In fact, he taught his children Black history lessons, using his own books that told the story of Black luminaries.

“He always told me, 'You know, no one will ever teach you this, so I’m going to teach you.' We came from people who have made a big huge contribution to this country, to the world. And you need to know that,” she said.

Back at the Charles B. Bell Pavilion, Brandon Gamble, director of the Black Resource Center at San Diego State, said that Charles Bell is part of a tradition.

“People can come to the campus here at San Diego State and take a Black Excellence Tour and learn about Harold Brown, who was an outstanding basketball player but more importantly was the first black administrator here on campus,” Gamble said. “Or they can hear about Shirley Webber, who is our current (California) secretary of state but she was also a professor in the Africana Studies Department.”

He said Charles Bell is an important part of that story.

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