February has always been a special month to me because it’s a time to celebrate black history. It’s important to take time to honor the heroes who have paved the way. I’ve literally been working all month to bring you something meaningful. There have been many starts and stops but I finally feel good about where I’ve landed. Today I’m happy to share about an unsung hero who triumphed and overcame what looked to be insurmountable obstacles.
Travers J Bell jr should be celebrated by all Americans. His is truly a story of the american dream. He worked hard and went from rags to riches better yet, from the projects to Wall Street. Travers J Bell Jr was the founder and owner of the first black-owned member firm on the New York Stock Exchange(NYSE).
Travers Bell Jr was raised on the south side of Chicago in the Ida B Wells Public housing projects in 1941. Like many kids in his neighborhood he had no aspiration for making it on Wall Street because that was simply unheard of. It so happened that Travers father worked as a mailroom clerk for Dempsey Tegler & Co, a Midwest brokerage house, where he got Bell Jr a job as a messenger.
After delivering briefcases filled with stock sheets and hundred thousand-dollar checks, Travers was convinced that Wall Street was his path to success even though no black men had done so before him. Travers outworked the work and caught the attention of the cofounder, Jerome F Tegeler “Jerry the Great.” Jerry admired Travers hard work and decided to do something unprecedented. Jerry took Travers under his wing and taught him investment banking. At the tender age of 23 Travers was promoted to the operations manager of the whole company. After graduating college Travers went to work at another broker/dealer named Fusz Schmelzle as chief operating officer, while building his sales and trading experience. This is where the dream of one day owning his very own firm begin to take root in his heart.
In 1970 Travers met with Willie Daniels in New York. It was there that the idea to form Daniels & Bell was born. The two personalities did not always agree but they were able to come together to create something that would change African American history.
Travers and Willie faced lots of obstacles to fulfill their dreams of being a member firm on the NYSE. It appeared that the two would never make it on Wall Street as every time they would meet requirement they would be met with new ones. The goal post kept moving. Fate would have it that Myron Kandel, a financial reporter at CNN who had his own publication called the Wall Street Letter, would take interest in their story and help to change their lives forever.
Kandel wrote a piece in his Wall Street Letter called “The Shattered Dream” that detailed the failed aspirations of Travers and Willie. A subscriber named William J. Casey read the article and felt compelled to do something to help these African American men achieve their dream. At that time William J Casey was just named chairmen of the SEC by Richard Nixon. He influenced the SEC to give Travers and Willie an exemption from the laws that encumbered their SBIC financing. It’s good to have friends in high places.
Casey also called in a few favors to help the men with raising the funds. Among those was one Dan Lufkin. Dan Lufkin was the co-founder of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. He was known for pioneering the initial public offering at the firm, making it the first Wall Street firm to sell its shares to the public. Lufkin did not share the views or align with the good ole boys club that would have never let an African American gain private membership. This was an opportunity for him to punch them right in the face. It was a no brainer for Lufkin to assist these two brilliant hardworking black men with their membership. The deal was met with massive criticism, but Lufkin didn’t give a damn. And with that history was made! Lufkin remained a long term friend and powerful alley.
In 1971, Daniels & Bell became the first black-owned member firm on the New York Stock Exchange. Also, Bell structured the first leveraged buyout completed by an African American when his DanBell subsidiary acquired Cocoline Chocolate, which at that time was among the nation’s largest black-owned companies. Not only were the buyers and investors black but the legal work was done by a young black lawyer named Reginald F. Lewis.
Bell accomplished this without Daniels, making him feel left out, further damaging an already fragile relationship. Daniels parted from the firm due to conflicts with Travers only three years after co-founding it. Travers always had a tough attitude that he unapologetically acknowledged but caused lots of riffs on the street. He credits his tough attitude on Wall Street from his upbringing in the projects of Chicago. Don’t let the pretty boy hair and smile fool you, Travers played Wall Street like it was the southside.
His smarts and mental toughness were the key to his success. I’ll be the first to say it, Travers Bell Jr was a Wall Street gangsta! On the contrary, He appeared to be a very loving, warm, and caring person. In fact, Travers was very passionate about getting more African Americans involved in the financial markets. When asked by a CNN interviewer about the advice he would give to the young boys in the projects he said he would tell them, “this is the American Dream that can be realized by him. It takes some work, dedication, and believing that he can do it.” and “The American Dream is possible if you put in the time”. Travers grew the Daniels & Bell firm net worth to $15 million.
Sadly in 1988 Travers died suddenly from a heart attack at the young age of 46.
Something interesting to note is that one of his sons, Darryl Bell played “Ron” on the popular 90’s sitcom “A Different World”.
I remember watching that show every week as a kid with my aunties who were obsessed with it at that time.
Travers J Bell Jr was regarded as the “father of the modern minority-owned investment bank” by Investment Dealers Digest in 1999.
I really love his story because he came from humble beginnings. He rose from the projects and made it to Wall Street breaking barriers for other African Americans to come. Travers taught us that not only is hard work required but he leveraged the knowledge and wisdom of his mentors. He leaned on his network and community when he needed support the most. So many good lessons here. I hope this inspires you to work hard and dream big in your own journey because truly anything is possible.