OCEANSIDE — Dr. James E. Schell, 83, had an epiphany in 1999 when he and his wife, Doris, returned to their hometown of West Point, Ga., for a reunion of 10th Street High School. Like all southern schools in the 1940s, it was segregated.
“It was banquet night and the lights were dimmed at the reunion,” Dr. Schell recalled. “There were two tables with nothing but white people. I said, ‘Who are they?’ Then I got closer and recognized them as the Winstons.”
Doris Schell added, “The last time we saw them was in sixth grade.”
The Schells visited for a few minutes, then returned to their table discussing the fact that even though the Winston children were light-skinned, they identified as “colored.” This was due to racial integrity laws that required children to take on the race and surname of their mother who, in this case, was a mulatto woman named Rosa Winston. Their father was Burrell Harrell, the son of a Confederate soldier.
“When we returned to our hotel after the banquet Jim said, ‘There’s a story here,’” Doris Schell recalled.
Dr. Schell felt a sense of purpose in sharing the Winston-Harrell saga with a broader audience and began work on a book. After his father died, Burrell Harrell’s mother signed over the family’s 2,000-acre Rose Hills Plantation to him. She and his sisters lived on the main property. Refusing to comply with laws that prohibited interracial marriage, he built a house for his common-law wife, Rosa, and their nine children, three-fourth’s of a mile down a knoll from the main house.
“You could see her house on the veranda from the family home,” Dr. Schell explained. “He had a dual life and ate two breakfasts each morning.
“It reflected so much of what is happening from the black viewpoint that escapes most Americans today. It’s ignorance that keeps us apart and it is knowledge that brings us together.”
Dr. Schell first interviewed the Winstons, then the Harrells.
“I received a manuscript written by Burrell’s sister which gave me revealing insight into the family,” he recalled.
Next, he gathered documentation from the courts and tax accessor.
The 266-page book was published in 2006 and included 47 photographs and seven graphics.
A second edition followed in January 2012.
“The purpose of the book is to let educated people in America know what it is like to be black and to have a better understanding of racism and how it prevailed,” he explained.
Currently, Dr. Schell is working on book about Burrell Harrell’s cousin, Bubba Harrell, who used his expertise and position as an attorney and congressman to help the Winston family become financially secure.
Dr. Schell’s next book is an autobiography that begins when he started school at the age of 4, and subsequently skipped grades two and seven. At 13 he began traveling to Connecticut each summer to earn money to attend Morehouse College which he did picking tobacco in the field with women who had immigrated from Poland.
“I was the only one who had a watch and still remember how to say ‘What time is it, Jim?’ in Polish,” he said, smiling.
Dr. Schell began Morehouse College at 15 and graduated at 19 with a degree in math and physics. A classmate, a year ahead of him in the divinity school, was a young man named Martin Luther King, Jr.
After college, he got a job as a radar instructor at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., and then enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served in the signal corps for two years. Ultimately, he forged a successful career in management of computer science and technology for military systems.
He received a Presidential Appointment by Jimmy Carter as a Federal Senior Executive and later an honorary law degree from Morehouse College.
Dr. Schell is among seven local authors to participate in the Carlsbad City Library Local Authors’ Festival from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 23 in the Ruby G. Schulman Auditorium at 1775 Dove Lane. Local author Taffy Cannon will moderate a panel discussion from 11 a.m. to noon. Refreshments will be served and books will be available for sale and signing. For more information, call (760) 602-2012.
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