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Ernestine Armstrong Bell departed this life on January 12, 2022, following a short period of declining health. She died suddenly of heart failure. She was 82.
Affectionally known as “Ma-Bell” by her grandchildren, “Ernie” by her colleagues, and “Steen” by close friends and family, Ernestine was born August 11, 1939, to Frank and Jessie Armstrong, in Prentiss, Mississippi.
She was raised on a family farm in Jefferson Davis County (between the towns of Prentiss and Silver Creek). She was the eldest of four children and learned to cook whole meals for the family. Cooking would forever become a part of her daily life, her way of expressing love for her own family later in life.
As a young girl, she demonstrated a talent for speaking and performance at school and church. She was baptized at an early age at Springhill Baptist Church, and later she and her family joined the Galilee Baptist Church, of Prentiss. She graduated high school in 1957 from the Prentiss Normal and Industrial Institute, a private historically black school founded in the Booker T. Washington tradition.
She was determined to continue her education after high school. She knew no one in Nashville, Tennessee when the National Business College recruited her, but she made the decision to leave Mississippi in 1958 to attend the school, which was located on Lebanon Pike, near Murfreesboro Road. Not long after she arrived, she met Joyce Payton, also from Mississippi, and they became lifelong friends. Joyce’s sister, Hamer, soon moved to Nashville also, and with Ernestine, the three became a trio.
Ernestine finished business school and began working as a secretary in Nashville, in 1960. She worked for various civil rights attorneys and the AME Church Christian Recorder newspaper. At the time, student demonstrators were forging change in Nashville’s racially segregated landscape. She and Joyce were excited to be working as young, black professionals. They were renters at 1407 Villa Place, in the Edghill community, known for its black elite residents and businesses at that time.
In addition to her professional work, Ernestine liked meeting people and earning extra money working as a part-time waitress at restaurants like the Elliston Place Soda Shop. When she began waiting tables at another restaurant downtown, on Fourth Avenue and Charlotte, she met U.S. Army veteran and Nashville native, John Lewis Bell, Jr., who had recently returned from Europe, and was also working downtown.
Ernestine and John, whom she affectionally called “Bell,” married, and started a family dynasty. To this union, three children were born. They were married for 60 years.
Ernestine was devoted to her husband and children. She stopped working and stayed at home with her little ones until they each started school.
In the early 1970s, she went back to work in all of her wonder and excitement about the changing fashions for women of the time. She worked for Genesco, Inc., where she rose from a warehouse clerk to buyer of materials to make shoes at company factories around the state. She advanced to accountant at the corporate office in Nashville. During this time, she was also a working mom, driving her kids to and from places before and after work, and at one time, selling more girl scout cookies than any other mom in her youngest daughter’s troop.
Ernestine was a beautiful woman, inside and out. She was generous, compassionate, loved talking on the telephone, endearing herself to close friends and family. She loved making herself look good, being well-dressed, and standing tall in her high heels! She lived to shop, not just for herself, but for her husband and children too. It was important to her that her whole family looked their best.
Ernestine and John became faithful, pioneering members and leaders of the Berean Baptist Church in the early 1970s. She was a caring and diligent Financial Secretary for 17 years, planned and facilitated countless programs, church meals and events, and sang in the choir. She was always supporting others.
In 1990, she joined the sales team at the Castner-Knott Department Store in the Green Hills area of Nashville. She earned the respect of her colleagues and management as a dedicated team player through several company mergers. The store became known as Macy’s Department Store. Ernestine earned the title of top salesperson in the state of Tennessee for Macy’s. She was a beloved icon by her coworkers at the Green Hills store, over her 30-year tenure there.
She did not have any personal family in Nashville; her husband’s family and her church family were like her own.
Ernestine was preceded in death by both her parents, Frank and Jessie Armstrong, of Prentiss, Mississippi, and one brother, Frank Shelton Armstrong, of Chicago, Illinois.
She leaves to mourn one sister, Jean Armstrong-Lewis, and one brother, Grover Armstrong, both of Chicago, IL. Her husband, John L. Bell, Jr.; one sister-in-law Dorothy Haley; all three of her adult children, Natalie R. Bell Sartin, Xavier (Nadine) Bell, and Dr.Von LaTreace Bell; grandsons Leon Williams III, Xavier Jr. and Brandon Bell; great-grandchildren John Carter and Aubri Rose Bell, and Jordan Nyamesem Williams; many nieces and nephews of both the Armstrong and Bell families.
Ernestine’s oral history of her early life growing up in Central Mississippi, in Jefferson Davis County, and in the town of Prentiss, is available online: https://da.mdah.ms.gov/series/conversations/armstrongbell
Her oral history covers her years in high school during the mid-1950s at the historic Prentiss Institute. It was recorded in 2021 by her cousin Travis Armstrong, M.A. History, and accepted as a research resource at the Mississippi Dept. Of Archives and History.
Because of Ernestine’s support for the preservation of her high school alma mater, she was also interviewed in 2020 for a promotional film about the school, which can be viewed on the Video page of this website or directly on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjWP-t53VTQ (Prentiss Institute Documentary: Looking Back, Looking Ahead)
Funeral services were held Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, at the Rosenwald Building at Prentiss Institute for Mrs. Rosie Lee Hawthorne Hooker, 98, who died Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Arthur Cribbs officiated with interment following in Green Grove Baptist Church cemetery. Johnson Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.
Mrs. Rosie Hooker was born in Jefferson Davis County to the late Louis Dudley and Carrie Doretha Johnson Hawthorne. She was affectionately known as “Doll”. She was a member of Green Grove Baptist Church where she served as Financial Secretary of the church for 32 years, Assistant Director of the Youth Choir, Adult Sunday School Teacher, Trustee Board Member, Secretary of the District Association, President of the General Baptist Quarterly Institute and Secretary of the Sophia Sutton Mission Board of Trustees.
Mrs. Hooker attended Pine Ridge Elementary School and later Prentiss Institute where she graduated high school. After graduation, she attended Henderson Business College earning a degree in Business Administration. While attending college, she met and married Marvell S. Addison, Sr. and to this union, two children were born, Marvell Jr. and Maxie Jewel. She later met and married Curtis Hooker and to that union, two children were born, Refferd and Archie.
She was preceded in death by husband, Curtis Hooker and son, Archie Hooker.
Mrs. Hooker had many employment experiences, first job was Coulters Cleaners, and later for her grandfather, Estus Johnson at Johnson Funeral Home. Her most rewarding employment was with Prentiss Institute and later at the bank in Prentiss. Mrs. Hooker affiliations were: President and Secretary of Eureka Arts Club, President and Secretary of the Federated Women’s Club, Recording and Financial Secretary, Treasurer and Chairman of the Budget Committee of the Mississippi State Heroines of Jericho, NAACP, the Prentiss Institute Alumni Association and Prentiss Institute Board of Trustees. She received many awards and appreciations from her various affiliations.
Mrs. Hooker is survived by two sons, Marvell “Sonny” Addison of Prentiss and Refferd (Bernice) Hooker of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; one daughter, Maxie Jewell Addison of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; one sister, Maxine (John) Simmons of Chicago, Illinois; one bonus son, Archie Allen of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 15 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren; five great-great-grandchildren; one aunt, Geraldine Johnson of Seattle, Washington; dear friend, Oreadean Abrams of Prentiss and many other relatives and friends.
By Holley Cochran, The Prentiss Headlight
Video of Mrs. Hooker chronicling the History of Prentiss Institute