How Travers J. Bell Jr. became the “Father of Black Investment Banking”

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 15, 2024 9:26 AM EDT
Travers J. Bell Jr. Photo credit: Envestnet Institute On Campus

Although Travers J. Bell Jr. lived a short life, he left behind an indelible legacy as the “Father of Black Investment Banking”. A story of humble beginnings, he went from delivering briefcases of stock sheets and cash to bankers to structuring multimillion-dollar dollar transactions on Wall Street. His firm Daniels & Bell, became the first Black-owned investment bank on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

“You’ve got to believe that you can do it,” Bell once said.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the Ida B Wells Public housing projects, he never envisioned himself working on Wall Street. His father worked as a mailroom clerk at the Chicago office of Dempsey Tegler & Company and was able to get his son a messenger job. After working at the brokerage firm for a while, Bell was convinced that this was the path for his future. His passion and drive were noticed by the firm’s cofounder Jerome F. Tegeler who began to mentor him. At age 23, Bell was promoted to Operations Manager at Dempsey-Tegeler.

“There was no way to move your dad. I really could not move him because nobody`s mind was ready for that. I think that our people can react to the fact that you can deliver. And you’re obviously good at what you can do and you learn real fast. I`m going to do something a lot of people aren’t going to like, I really am. I’m going to teach you the business,” the owner Dempsey Tegler told Bell in 1963.

Bell earned degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and the New York Institute of Finance. Following his graduation, he left Dempsey-Tegeler and became Chief Operating Officer at Fusz Schmelzle. He eventually rose to vice president of the New York firm and continued honing his skills in sales and trading. In the meantime, Bell began to dream and strategize about owning his own firm.

Alongside Willie E. Daniels, Bell founded the investment bank Daniels & Bell in 1971 with a seed capital of $175,000. He focused his efforts on underwriting securities for growing minority-owned businesses and municipal bonds for small Southern cities. Few investors wanted to underwrite these types of opportunities due to racism and the financial risk involved. Bell saw the firm’s selling proposition as a way to support other minority-owned businesses, help small towns build wealth, and improve infrastructure in underserved communities.

Daniels & Bell Inc. made history by becoming the first Black-owned investment bank on the New York Stock Exchange. The firm encountered many obstacles as many neither welcomed nor embraced the idea of a Black firm joining the NYSE. The connections Bell and Daniels had made were instrumental in supporting their process. They influenced the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to exempt firms from rules that hindered their financing and helped the men raise funds. Daniels left the company shortly afterward to go into the restaurant business.

Daniels and Bell grew to become a major force in municipal bonds underwriting across the United States. In addition to contributing to the needs of the minority community, the firm participated in large distribution syndicates formed by other investment banks. Bell structured one of the first leveraged buyouts completed by an African American businessman when his DanBell subsidiary acquired Cocoline Chocolate. The former was ranked among the largest Black-owned companies in the 1980s.

In 1988, Bell died from a heart attack at age 46. The company had grown to a net worth of over $15 million and was still the only Black-owned member of the NYSE. At the time of his death, Bell was chairman of the New York district of the Securities Industry Association, the industry’s chief lobby group.