Once Upon A Time On Wall Street

The struggle to establish an African American presence is a saga of ambition against overwhelming odds

After my grandfather’s death, I was sitting in his apartment at a celebration of his life, and next to me was a basket full of magazines. Among the Jet and National Geographic publications was a silver and black issue of BLACK ENTERPRISE. It was the 25th anniversary issue from August 1995. Since it was almost 3 years old, I assumed that he had saved it for special reasons. While looking through it, I stumbled upon an article by Frank McCoy called “The Building of the Black Financial World.” That piece changed my life.

The article rekindled my interest in the subject of African Americans on Wall Street, a subject that I had avoided for some time because of the unfortunate events that unfolded at Daniels & Bell after my father [Travers J. Bell Jr.] died in 1988. When I was in grade school, half of some Fridays were spent at the Daniels & Bell headquarters. This was during an era when the company was at the top of its game and the period of dire struggle was a distant memory. For example, 1986 was a milestone because Daniels & Bell finished the year by ranking in the top 20 municipal finance houses. That achievement was far removed from the 1970s when my father and his partner, Willie Daniels, made history by co-founding the first black-owned member firm of the New York Stock Exchange. Despite this monumental accomplishment, the firm struggled during the bleak 1970s as social and economic factors worked against them. Unfortunately, as was representative of much of the black financial community of that time, disagreements often hindered what could have been accomplished together. Willie Daniels left in the mid ’70s, leaving my father as chairman of a firm that eventually broke barriers for black-owned investment banks.

While the larger lessons learned in that office settled in with maturity and hindsight, as a child I experienced the excitement generated by the game of numbers and calculation. As I did the interviews for this book, I reawakened some memories about that period in my life, such as how I struggled to carry my father’s heavy briefcase from the elevator to his desk and how I earned five dollars for stuffing envelopes. While these tasks were menial, the experience had a larger impact. Bankers such as Frank Raines and Jeff Humber told me that they didn’t even know what investment banking was until after college. My experience was invaluable; I was able to see for myself at a young age what Wall Street was all about and that the possibilities were indeed limitless.

In the late 1950s, a black stockbroker joked, “The only Negroes on Wall Street before us were either sweeping it or shining shoes on it.” Although the quip was made for laughs, it concealed a somber tone of unfulfilled promise. The joke was based on truth. No African American had ever come close to reaching the status or wealth of even the most average of securities professionals. No African American

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