John Ferris Bell (January 14, 1890 - October 10, 1959) was born and educated in Petersburg, Virginia. Following his graduation from Hampton Institute, he taught tailoring for four years at Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri. He then trained as a funeral director and mortician in Chicago, Illinois. In the 1920s, Bell moved to Charlottesville to organize the J.F. Bell Funeral Home which continues today as the oldest family run funeral home in central Virginia and the area's oldest existing business owned by people of color.
The business was initially located on Vinegar Hill at 275 West Main Street in a two-story brick building that was shared with Messenger Printing Company, operated by John G. Shelton. In 1919, Bell married Maude Lee of Charlottesville, who assisted her new husband in the business and later became a funeral director herself. Their business prospered and around 1925 a local contractor, Charles Cole, built the J. F. Bell funeral Home with an upstairs apartment for the family. It remains the central part of the funeral home at 108 6th Street N.W.
The Bells had four children. Rosamond Bell Jemison taught at Jefferson School in Charlottesville for many years. John F. Bell, Jr. trained as a mortician in Boston, Massachusetts, and then apprenticed with his father in the family business. The two youngest children were twins: Henry H. Bell and Raymond L. Bell. Like his brother, Henry studied in Boston and then apprenticed to his father and became an expert mortician. Henry H. Bell was a recipient of the Golden Licensee Award in 2001 from the Virginia Funeral Directors' Association for 50 years of continuous service to the funeral industry, all of it spent at J. F. Bell Funeral Home.
In the early 1950s, Raymond left his studies as a graduate student at Boston University to work as a funeral director with his father and his twin. In recent years the third generation of the family has entered the business. One of Henry's daughters, Deborah Bell Burks, and her husband Martin Burks III are now actively involved in the Bell Funeral Home.
All the men of the Bell family served in the armed forces. John F. Bell served in World War I, his three sons in World War II, and his grandson-by-marriage is a retired Lt. Colonel. Both J.F. Bell and J.F. Bell, Jr. were active in the Masons, Henry with his church and Ray with the local NAACP. As the NAACP Public Relations chairman during the desegregation of local schools, Ray took a vital role in keeping policies clear. His skillful handling of the national press earned him wide respect. Ray became the first African-American to serve on the Charlottesville School Board.
The J.F. Bell Funeral Home is located in the historic Vinegar Hill/Starr Hill neighborhood, just off West Main Street in Charlottesville.
Geographical and Contact Information
108 6th Street Northwest