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‘A kind heart’: Debra Bell, who helped the less fortunate, never forgot her roots

The retired DART employee, who grew up in Roosevelt Heights, succumbed to COVID-19 in the fall of 2020.

By Michael Granberry

Torsha Haynes (left), the daughter of Debra Bell
Torsha Haynes (left), the daughter of Debra Bell, who died of COVID-19 in September 2020, with daughter Taylor Green and a portrait of Torsha’s mother at their home in Mesquite. Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer

Debra Bell was 67 when she died in September 2020 from COVID-19. Her daughter, Torsha Haynes, 50, said her mom suffered from high blood pressure but was otherwise healthy. Something her mom never suffered from was bitterness.

“What I miss most about her is her smile,” Haynes said tearfully.

It’s impossible for the victims of COVID-19 to figure out how and where the virus infected them. In Bell’s case, she told her daughter it may have happened at the Dallas County Records Building, where, ironically, she had driven to file her will.

And there she was, standing next to a man who, in her daughter’s words, “was coughing over her.”

Soon, she was desperately ill and was, her daughter said, gone within days.

Bell had long ago taken a deep dive into the painful past of her Black family’s history, which extended from slavery to the soggy bottomlands of Dallas’ Roosevelt Heights.

A close-knit community made up of small wooden houses near the west end of Bruton Road, Roosevelt Heights lingered for decades as an at-risk community.

Any big rain, much less a flood, such as one that crushed the community in 1957, saturated its homes to the point of making them barely livable. Water as high as several feet would make swimming pools out of streets with such names as Sunbeam and Tune and do so for days.

The problem lasted for years, until a bond election in 1972 allocated $2.5 million in an effort to buy out homeowners and enable them to move elsewhere.

But in payments doled out by the City Council, the offers were modest, with most ranging between $11,000 and $12,500, which included the worth of the property and the cost of relocating.

In the minds of many, it was hardly a fair deal.

Debra Bell
Torsha Haynes’ mother, Debra Bell, died of COVID-19 in September 2020. “What I miss most about her is her smile,” Torsha said tearfully. Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer

Bell and her family resettled in Pleasant Grove, where Haynes graduated from Samuell High School in 1990. A divorcee, Bell raised three children (one girl and two boys) and had nine grandchildren she adored.

Despite the rigors of life, Bell, her daughter says, embraced the path in front of her and did so with an upbeat attitude. And always with a knockout smile.

“She worked all her life,” Haynes said, noting that her mother retired in August 2019 from Dallas Area Rapid Transit, where she worked for 35 years. Haynes now works as a supervisor for DART.

“She loved to travel,” Haynes said. “And she loved her culture. She was a God-fearing woman who went to church faithfully. She just enjoyed … life.”

Black history became a passion of Bell’s. No matter where her life took her, she pursued the trail of her family’s past and those of her ancestors with the rigor of a scholar.

“She loved her culture,” Haynes said.

Among her mother’s most prized possessions were four African masks.

“And she always gave back to her community,” Haynes said.

Bell’s good heart made it possible, her daughter said, for the less fortunate to enjoy prom night, by making sure they had a pretty dress to wear and a purse to match.

“And she routinely spent Mother’s Day and Father’s Day at nursing homes,” she said. “She had a kind heart, and no matter how much she may have been mistreated, she always gave people a second chance, the benefit of the doubt. She was a Christian woman who was so full of love, no matter what happened to make life a challenge or a downer.

“She was a shining example for all of those who came to know her. And I was so blessed to have her as my mother.”

Staff researcher Naomi Kaskela contributed to this report.

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