An Interview with Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Maryland Court of Appeals
By Hon. William D. Missouri (Ret.),
Prince George’s County Circuit Court
Excerpted from The Judges’ Journal (Winter 2011) and
reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association.
Years before he was Maryland’s first African-American chief jurist, Robert Mack Bell was a student at Dunbar High School in Baltimore. In 1960, 12 African-American students, mostly from Dunbar, were refused service at a downtown restaurant and subsequently arrested and convicted for trespassing. One of those students, 16-year-old Robert M. Bell, led an appeal of the verdict in a landmark civil rights case, (Bell v. Maryland, 378 U.S. 226, 1964), which eventually was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and brought an end to de facto racial segregation in Maryland.
I know that you were born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but at what age did you come to Baltimore?
Well, my mother moved to Baltimore with my two brothers and me when I was about a year-and-a-half. I suspect that the decision to come was largely made as a result of the breakup of my mother and father. I know that my mother’s brother had settled in Baltimore and was urging her to move up, and she was attempting to better her condition since she was simply a sharecropper.
Chief, you ended up at one of the outstanding high schools on the East Coast for African-Americans at that time. Something significant happened while you were at Dunbar. Would you please elaborate on that?
At the end of my junior year, we were approached by students from Morgan State College, who were going to stage a sit-in demonstration in downtown Baltimore to protest the closing of places of public accommodations to African-Americans. I was Dunbar’s student government president at the time. My role was to recruit students to participate. So, on the 16th of June of 1960, I got on the bus with a bunch of other students from Dunbar, and 12 of us ended up going and sitting in a restaurant in downtown Baltimore called Hooper’s. We were, as a result of that, arrested and charged with trespassing. The trial, of course, occurred in Circuit Court, in those days, it was called the Supreme Bench of Baltimore.
Did you receive your mother’s blessing and permission to participate in that civil rights act?
My mother, being from North Carolina and having seen discrimination and being very much aware of its impact, always took steps to keep us away from it as much as she could. So, when the opportunity came to participate, knowing my mother, I knew that she would have been concerned about my being involved, and she would have said no. So, I did not ask her. I did it and I told her when it was over, when I had to, after I had been arrested; I told her then. And, interestingly enough, she was very supportive.
Did your experience at the high school level play a part in your decision to attend law school?
Quite frankly, I am not sure. I had already decided to become a lawyer before then. I started thinking about becoming a lawyer when I was a youngster, having read many of the “Perry Mason” books by Erle Stanley Gardner. Now, once I had that experience, that real-life experience, and I went on to college, given some of the feedback from some of my professors, I am sure that it confirmed that intention.