Dianne Bellamy Small’s Bold Blessing
Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small listens with her head cocked to the side as a frustrated constituent, a man wearing glasses and a T-shirt stuffed into work pants, gives her an earful about some deficiency in city services. Slightly agitated, he gives the impression of someone who sweats the requirements of making ends meet, someone convinced that the forces of life are aligned against him.
Bellamy-Small stands in the parking lot of Stephanie’s, a soul food establishment on Randleman Road, beside her minivan, where she’s gone to retrieve something. Inside the restaurant in a round corner booth her canvas handbag leans against the seat and a couple stacks of papers share the tabletop with a bowl of lemon slices. The restaurant is something of a political headquarters and sometime workplace. It’s where her supporters convened a couple days after her fellow councilwoman, Florence Gatten, called for Bellamy-Small’s resignation.
Did the man approach the appropriate city staff to get the problem resolved, she asks.
“I know the power structure,” he replies. “The first thing I heard was rhetoric, and that’s all I heard.”
“But did you talk to Ben?”
“I’m done with that. I’m taking a different direction.”
The councilwoman urges him to not think of her as part of the power structure. The man appears to have given up on resolving his problem through formal channels.
“I just want you to know we’re all behind you,” he tells her as they part.
Over the past 12 months, Bellamy-Small has faced mounting criticism, most noticeably from outside District 1, but also from some of her constituents.
The unwelcome attention began when Bellamy-Small broke ranks with the rest of her fellow council members by refusing to take a polygraph test designed to determine who leaked a confidential report on alleged wrongdoing within the police department. Although a forensic investigation later determined that Bellamy-Small’s copy of the report was the one leaked, some observers speculate that the leak might have occurred after she returned it to the city attorney’s office. Others see the leak as a positive development that brought needed transparency to the city, and view the scrutiny on Bellamy-Small as a distraction from the more serious problem of mismanagement within the police department.
Gossip has also swirled around what some consider Bellamy-Small’s boorish behavior in the manner in which she claimed office space at the municipal building. Bellamy-Small’s insistence on taking a corner office has earned her a reputation for not playing well with others among some of her fellow council members.
The incident that led to the loudest expressions of dismay was a traffic stop on the night of Feb. 6 shortly after Bellamy-Small left a city council meeting. A transcript of Officer MJ Calvert’s text messages from that night created the impression that Bellamy-Small tried to exploit her position as an elected official to receive favorable treatment.
“Council woman… I just pulled over… not good,” Calvert messaged a fellow officer. “I think I better let her off on this one.” It didn’t help Bellamy-Small’s case that Calvert added: “She asked for a card and said she will be calling the chief in the morning.”
Bellamy-Small, who reluctantly agreed to an interview with YES! Weekly, says she did not influence Calvert to refrain from issuing a ticket.
“His decision not to give me the ticket was his and his alone,” she says. “I said to him that I did not believe I was speeding because I knew he was behind me. So why would I speed?”
The councilwoman says she did not file a complaint against Calvert, but did express concern to his captain about the incident because she felt the young officer treated her rudely.
Bellamy-Small says she told Calvert: “I just left a council meeting and am headed home.” She adds, “I never said, ‘I am T. Dianne Bellamy-Small and you better not give me a ticket.’ I said, ‘I need to make a complaint’ – which all I was saying was I had a concern. I talked to his captain, and he said, ‘He’s young; he hasn’t really developed the finesse yet.’
“I’ve received a lot of complaints from my constituents about young, white officers being rude,” she says.
As to whether the councilwoman is related by blood or marriage to Chief Tim Bellamy, Dianne Bellamy-Small declines to say.
“I’m not going to get into that,” she says. “Let’s just say Bellamy is not a name like Smith or Jones. Let people continue to wonder.”
The incident did not merit attention from the news media in Bellamy-Small’s view.
“I didn’t want this kind of attention,” she says. “I’m actually an introvert. I have learned to be an adaptive extrovert. When you feel like you’re under attack, you do like most people do and retreat.”
It was another incident, however, that precipitated Bellamy-Small’s most severe political crisis. Florence Gatten, who is the city council liaison to the Greensboro Transit Authority board, complained that Bellamy-Small had been handing out complimentary bus passes to constituents, among them homeless people who congregate outside of Urban Ministry. The board promptly voted to stop the practice of giving free bus passes to elected officials and nonprofits that serve the poor.
Then Gatten held a press conference calling on Bellamy-Small to resign. About the same time Tony Wilkins, a constituent of Councilwoman Sandy Carmany, launched a recall effort against Bellamy-Small.
Bellamy-Small points out that she never violated any policy by distributing the passes. Those who view the practice as an abuse of power miss the point, she suggests. Poor people desperately need public transportation to meet their basic needs.
“I rode the bus in February 2005 for six hours,” she says. “I made recommendations. Nobody ever paid any attention to that. I don’t think any of the present [council] members have done that, and we’re making decisions for the people who use the bus. These are people who are standing out in the rain on Eugene Street and stepping down into the mud. It’s the working poor who catch the bus, but nobody has complained about their needs for shelter.”
She notes that she consistently votes in favor of economic incentives, but argues that mass transit is just as important an element of economic development.
“I’m the only working stiff on the council,” Bellamy-Small says. “Everyone else owns their own business or they run their own agency. Compare my income with any council member and I guarantee I make the least except for maybe Sandy Carmany, who’s a housewife.
“Poor people – black or white – feel they don’t have the same voice as people who live in parts of Greensboro like Westerwood and Horse Pen Creek Road,” she suggests. “They actually do if they come to city council meetings and voice their concerns. I’m about empowering people who have not had a voice, and that scares the powers that be because poor people and working people are the majority.”
She understands the needs of the poor because she is not far up the economic ladder from them, Bellamy-Small suggests.
“I got a mortgage payment like everybody else,” she says. “I struggle to pay my bills. My husband is late paying his taxes. I don’t have a lot and I’m not ashamed of that. I have to turn off the telephone sometimes because it’s more important to pay the light bill.”
Bellamy-Small practices retail politics. She huddles with individual constituents who buttonhole her at Stephanie’s to bring concerns to her attention. She doles out advice to them when they catch her in the hallway during recess at city council meetings. Where her colleagues strategically choose political initiatives and refine rhetorical themes, Bellamy-Small reels off catalogues of city service concerns, weaving in questions about equity and analysis of power relations.
On a recent Tuesday she’s up at 7:30 a.m. to teach an adult education class. In the evening she attends the transit authority board meeting to provide them with copies of her February 2005 “GTA Riding Experience Report” and to purchase 50 passes so she can continue to distribute them.
She’s both ubiquitous and maddeningly difficult to reach, depending on whom you ask.
The criticism of Bellamy-Small’s constituent services has risen to such a level that the councilwoman’s pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Diane Givens Moffett, alludes to it as she joins dozens of others to express support at a March 6 council meeting.
“I have had the opportunity to talk with her and learn of her strengths and weaknesses and all that,” Moffett says. “I know that she is one of integrity. She will speak and do what she believes is right. She’s not going to go with the crowd or the status quo. I know that much, and I think in most cases that is a very, very good thing.
“I do know that during her tenure as I have talked to her, she has made many visits to schools, to churches and community functions within District 1 and beyond,” Moffett continues. “Although she may not have personally returned all of her telephone calls, she consistently conveys the concerns raised with her from members of her district to the appropriate city officials and has sought to get problems solved.”
That goes straight to the heart of Lane Tritt’s grievance. The 58-year-old Glenwood resident is a member of the Recall Small committee.
“It’s quite simple: She doesn’t return phone calls,” Tritt says. “I have to rely on other council members for help.
“They closed a crackhouse in Glenwood and suddenly I had crack addicts on my doorstep wanting money,” she explains. “This is at nine o’clock at night. I called for her and got no response. The next day after waiting I called another council member, Yvonne Johnson. The problem was taken care of immediately. They weren’t on my doorstep anymore.”
Bellamy-Small counters, “If I get a call that there are tennis shoes hanging on the wires, to [the constituent] they represent gangs or drugs. Donna Gray [of community relations] knows who to refer it to. I don’t. They might want to hear directly from me, but if I return the call, all I’m going to do is turn around and call Donna. Donna and her staff – I usually follow up with them every week to ten days. They know that I am going to call back.”
Tritt acknowledges that many of her fellow members of the Glenwood Neighborhood Association hold Bellamy-Small in high esteem. “I’ve run into more people who like her,” she says. “It makes me look like I’m out in left field.”
Among Bellamy-Small’s vocal supporters is Otis Hairston, a professional photographer in the Warnersville neighborhood who has led a fight to preserve the historically black JC Price School. Hairston credits Bellamy-Small for referring the neighborhood association to the city attorney, who in turn informed them of the option of pursuing third-party rezoning to stop Greensboro College from building a sports complex on the college’s property.
“I can tell you that she has a genuine concern about issues in our community – and not just with the JC Price School,” he says, adding that he believes that criticism of Bellamy-Small is fueled by another source.
“It’s just to me a political lynching,” he says. “I think it’s race, especially the News & Record. Why would a traffic violation make the front page? It’s just petty to me. Once the News & Record sets out to destroy someone, they start generating letters. The letters are so distorted because they don’t know the facts. Her aggressiveness about trying to be supportive of people in the African-American community makes her a target.”
No one should let it be said that Bellamy-Small ignores the more humble of her constituents in favor of the powerbrokers.
NC Rep. Earl Jones, who represented District 1 until he lost his reelection in 2001, said he tried unsuccessfully to reach Bellamy-Small for about six weeks in 2005 to lobby her on behalf of the vendors at NC A&T University’s homecoming. When he appeared before the city council to argue for allowing vendors to remain on Lindsay Street, Jones found that his political calculations had missed the mark.
“Everything was going smooth,” he says. “It appeared that it was going to go our way. The mayor seemed supportive. Just when everything seemed to be going our way, Dianne spoke. I assumed she might support us. She berated us, talked down to us. She basically just emphasized why the staff wanted to move the vendors. The way she did it was not very respectful. I considered it an ambush.”
Jones said Bellamy-Small’s opposition to allowing the vendors free reign at homecoming was the primary reason the Simkins PAC, a committee of black leaders that holds powerful sway over the black vote, endorsed her opponent in the 2005 municipal election. Bellamy-Small ended up prevailing over Luther Falls by less than 50 votes.
For Bellamy-Small, the vote boils down to the city’s need to balance support for homecoming with insulating itself from legal liability.
“A&T complained about vendors plopping down wherever,” she says. “A&T came to the city and said, ‘What are you going to do about that?’ A&T made it clear they did not want the vendors on their campus. If you did have a vendor who served some bad food, if you get sick you’re going to be looking for someone to hold accountable. The hot dog man might be back in West Virginia. The [defendant] of last resort would be the city of Greensboro.”
The councilwoman argues that A&T receives an enhancement of its services from the city.
“Earl wanted to block off Lindsay Street between Laurel Street and headquarters,” she says. “How was public safety going to get in if they needed to? What the city said is, ‘We will go halfway and compromise. They can have between Sullivan Street and headquarters.’ We lost money. We charged vendors a hundred dollars. For that, they got security, trash pickup and places to dump their hot grease for four days.”
Jones said he approached her at Hayes-Taylor YMCA’s awards ceremony at a restaurant in the Friendly Center shortly after the election.
“I told Dianne, ‘You got reelected,'” he said. “You got two years to repair any damage that you’ve done in the African-American community. Let’s work together.’ She pretty much turned her back.
“You can speculate,” Jones, a member of the Simkins PAC, says in answer to the question of whether it will endorse Bellamy-Small’s opponent this year. “All I can tell you is we did not endorse her in the last election. None of the issues that you were talking about had come up. You draw your own conclusions.”
Bellamy-Small makes no apologies for her independence.
“I know everyone thinks I’m a fire-breathing witch,” she says. “At my inauguration I quoted Thoreau where he says, ‘If she hears a different drummer, let her.’ What’s wrong with that.”
By the time Tereather Dianne Bellamy was an adolescent she had developed a strong sense of civic engagement. Her political beliefs take cues from 19th century American radicalism and early 20th century black literature. She dove headfirst into desegregation efforts as a high school student in the 1960s.
“I remember when I was twelve years old, I stood up in class and did Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address,'” she says. “I was led to believe that I was as much an American as anyone else. Not a black American or a white American. You must make government work for the people.”
The 1970 edition of the Black and Gold, the yearbook of RJ Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, lists Bellamy as president of chorus and secretary of the Human Relations Committee as well as a member of the Class Day Committee, the Girls Athletic Association, the Officials Club, the Drama Club and the Advanced Choral Ensemble. A gym leader, she played speedball, basketball and volleyball.
She entered RJ Reynolds High School with about 200 other black students ahead of official desegregation in 1971.
“We were determined that they were not going to make us fail,” Bellamy-Small says. “Since music was my talent and gift – and I was also an athlete – those were things that were helpful for me to challenge the color barrier.”
Among her proudest achievements was being elected the first black vice-president of Governor’s School, which she attended for singing between junior and senior year.
“The guidance counselor wouldn’t give me an application to Governor’s School,” Bellamy-Small says. “I went to Salem College across town to get the application. I took it back and collected my teachers’ recommendations. I had to take it to the secretary to get it signed. She said, ‘I’ll make sure the Governor School get this.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll take it to them myself.’ I wasn’t going to have it get lost.”
Dianne Bellamy ran away from home during her senior year in high school because of a difficult relationship with her biological father.
“My father is a very stern and harsh disciplinarian,” she says. Her father is no longer alive and she doesn’t speak much to her family, but she says she recently saw her mother at an aunt’s funeral and they were able to talk.
Anne Marie Tague, the white woman Bellamy-Small calls “mom,” is a 72-year-old former Marine drill sergeant who ran an auto repair shop after gender discrimination kept her from using her master’s degree in counseling in the 1960s. In recent weeks Bellamy-Small took Tague to the Veterans Administration hospital in Asheville for cancer treatments.
“She’s an extreme influence on me,” Bellamy-Small says. “I had a long conversation about all this with her. She said, ‘Follow your heart. If your heart is not into doing it, don’t do it anymore.'”
After graduating from RJ Reynolds, Bellamy enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill. She studied music, played volleyball and took part in the activities of the Black Student Movement, although she did not fully immerse herself in the political activist currents of the day. There were work obligations, she was commuting back to Winston-Salem on weekends, and she was devastated when both of her maternal grandparents were killed in an auto accident.
After earning a bachelor of arts, Bellamy moved to Greensboro and got married. One of her first jobs was with the Greensboro Police Department. In a foreshadowing of future events, she ran afoul of entrenched elements, challenged institutional justice and came away with some achievements in the course of her short police career.
Her first skirmish came when, in 1976, she hinted at a lawsuit in response to the department’s plans to withdraw her job offer after she became pregnant with her first child. The department compromised and offered her a spot in the rookie class of 1977.
“That class was unique at the time,” Bellamy-Small says. “We had the largest number of blacks and women that had been to that point. Every rookie class elected a president. All the white folks thought one of them should be the president. I pulled the African Americans together in the class, and asked them if they knew what bloc voting was. They said they did not. I told them that if minorities pool their vote for one candidate they can win when the majority splits their vote between two candidates.
“When [the white rookies] realized we were going to put in a black female candidate, one of the white men tried to pull out of the race, but they weren’t allowed to,” she continues. “We thought we would come in second or tie for first. How do you think the vote came out? Six, seven, eight. The black female won. There were seven black votes so one of our votes had to come from a white officer. We found out later that some of the other white guys picked at him, and he decided to get back at them.”
If that episode didn’t create hostility towards her, Bellamy-Small says she quickly learned the consequences of not going along with the program during a service call for a drunken/disorderly incident at L. Richardson Hospital. It was her second day on the job, and she was assigned to work with a veteran white officer. After she handcuffed the suspect, Bellamy-Small says, her partner patted him down. She says she stood perpendicular to the two men, watched her partner reach down to pat the suspect’s ankles, and then watched hiss fist catch the suspect’s chin. She says further that the suspect’s head was knocked against a concrete wall and her partner said, “You kicked me, you son of a bitch.”
Bellamy-Small says she did not believe the suspect kicked her partner and refused to corroborate his story that he had been provoked into the beating. Their superiors tried to cover up the abuse, she adds.
“When it got to the captain’s level, the sergeant and the lieutenant got punished,” she says. “I caught harassment because I had broken the code. I experienced being moved. I experienced my radio calls being blocked. People didn’t speak to me. If I started talking to another officer, they would break us up.”
Bellamy-Small’s training officer, Odessa Long, says she knew the rookie had some difficulties, but she doesn’t recall what precipitated them.
“I do know there was some ill feeling, but I don’t know what caused it,” says Long, who retired from the Cobb County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office in 2002. “Sometimes people have an inability to get along with a large group. She did have a problem with communication. She was most direct, very aggressive.
“I told her there is some things where you’ve got to bear up and keep going and don’t worry about other people’s attitudes,” Long continues. “Dianne’s a fine person; she’s just a little more aggressive than most.”
Bellamy-Small honored her former mentor in October 2005 by recognizing her with a Women In Law Enforcement award during a city council meeting. Long and three other Guilford County women who helped blaze trails for women in law enforcement were featured on billboards around Greensboro. Bellamy-Small took charge of the project by researching the outstanding achievements of women law enforcement officers, Long says.
Bellamy-Small could be considered a pioneer in dismantling gender barriers in local law enforcement herself. At the time she served on the force, female police officers wore the same uniforms as their male counterparts. She was then nursing her second son. The only shirt large enough to accommodate her breasts had sleeves that hung down past her hands. The crotches of the men’s pants were also uncomfortable for the women officers.
At Chief William Swing’s invitation, Bellamy-Small visited him in his office to discuss the problem.
“Normally, you would go up through the chain of command,” Long says. “I don’t know if Dianne didn’t know that or what, but she went directly to the chief rather than going up through her supervisor. After she went to the chief and explained that the pants were inappropriate for our sizes and body structure because of our thighs and hips and such, he came to us women and asked us, ‘Is this a problem?’ We told him, ‘Yeah.'”
At Bellamy-Small’s suggestion, Swing brought in a tailor and had the women measured and fitted for gender-appropriate uniforms.
The audacious young officer left the police department only a few years after joining, transferring to the city’s parks and recreation department.
“What made me leave the department is they put my life in jeopardy,” she says. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
As Bellamy-Small tells it, a campaign of harassment that today manifests itself in nasty letters to local newspapers reaches back to those days. Her troubles at the police department followed her to parks and recreation, and later to the Greensboro Housing Authority.
“What poisoned me was a visit from someone at the police department, saying I was ‘a defensive black female,'” she says. “That created a hate campaign against me. I’ve been somewhat harassed over the years.”
The District 1 councilwoman takes pride in having worked jobs that reveal difficult and unattractive aspects of life – jobs where an executive title or an impressive office suite didn’t shield her adversity. She recalls helping a public housing resident get a job at the police substation to earn extra money for her church activities. She remembers the time when she was a social worker visiting a house in High Point and found mattresses thrown down in one room so a family could conserve heat.
“I’ve seen people struggling,” she says. “I’ve seen people choosing between paying the light bill and the phone bill. I’ve never wanted to be removed from that – do you understand what I’m saying?”
Hearing Bellamy-Small talk, one gets the sense that she does not consider the Greensboro City Council the epitome of her accomplishments.
“When I worked at the Housing Authority there were young women coming to ask for basic items such as diapers,” she says. “On the third week of the month their money ran out. If the baby daddy didn’t send the child support check that month, they might not be able to change the baby’s diapers. They can get sick because bacteria spreads. I said, ‘Why don’t we supply basic baby items?’
“The program ended up getting statewide recognition,” Bellamy-Small continues. “When I ended up getting unemployed in 1993, I met this lady in High Point. I mentioned the Baby Basics program. She said, ‘Do you want to see our Baby Basics room? They not only had baby supplies, but they had maternity supplies. They had strollers. I cried because I was so touched by it. Something I started in Greensboro spread to High Point? That’s what you call ‘God.'”
She mentions the Langston Hughes poem “I, Too, Sing America” as being one of her favorites, reciting its graceful lines about “the darker brother” who expects to “be at the table” at some indeterminate point in the future.
“I think about Zora Neale Hurston,” Bellamy-Small says. “She was proud to be black. She talks about sharpening her oyster knife so she can be ready when she finds her pearl. I’ve been sharpening my oyster knife because I plan to find my pearl, whether it’s serving on the city council or serving as a citizen off the council. I am going to be a useful American human being until God says, ‘My good and faithful servant, come home.'”
She says she hasn’t made up her mind about whether to run for reelection. She’ll look to her constituents to let her know whether they want her to continue to serve. She says she’s a servant-leader rather than a politician, and ultimately God will help her decide.
The 8 a.m. Sunday morning service at St. James Presbyterian Church draws high-spirited worshipers. It’s a congregation made up of many educators whose dress and conveyance indicate a modicum of success. Upwardly mobile though some of the members may be, the church’s concerns are focused on the poor.
The Rev. Moffett preaches from the Book of Mark on the nameless woman who breaks an alabaster flask to anoint Christ with nard – an act of worship and love that prompts rebuke among the disciples, who consider it wasteful and extravagant.
Establishing thematic tension, Moffett pays respects to personages who have fought for the dignity of the poor in recent history.
“The chronicles of America are filled with stories of people who give their most valuable treasure to Jesus, serving the needs of the poor as he did,” she says. “Against all odds, these courageous men and women upset the status quo, conquering the fear of backlash and retaliation from those in power.”
The name Dianne Bellamy-Small is not uttered; nor is the councilwoman present. But in the sermon, the nameless woman with the alabaster flask takes on an unmistakable contemporary form.
“This woman is following in the footsteps of Jesus,” Moffett declares, building to her point. “She wants to serve the one who serves the poor and the pitiful. Watch her work her work and strut her strut. Watch her attitude, air and disposition as she interrupts the disciples’ party to bring a bold blessing to Jesus. Nobody, not the critical chorus of misguided disciples, not cultural norms that keep women in their place and prohibit any touching or show of affection between women and men in public – nothing, not the social etiquette that frowns upon public displays of intimacy – no one, not the condemning thoughts of those who keep silent – not who she is or who she used to be – nothing distracts her or discourages her. No one and no thing will stop her. She’s got a made-up mind and a determined destination….” The congregants are clapping now. “She’s focused and she’s fierce. She intends to do what she must do.”
Moffett’s words ring with affirmation, love and a thirst for social justice.
“She displays what Patti LaBelle calls ‘a new attitude,'” she continues. “I believe she was a sista. Her countenance says, ‘I paid the cost to be the boss without anybody’s permission.’ Not the head, not the host, not the honored guest himself – no, not even Jesus’ permission is sought. She proceeds determined to anoint the Lord. She knows what time it is. For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven…. I love this sister. She’s a soul sister. She’s a sister who will not leave until she’s satisfied.”
The preacher informs the congregation that the crowd wants to rebuke this nameless woman.
“But she doesn’t hear all that,” Moffett says. “She’s been delivered from public opinion.
“She’s a woman, but not a second-class citizen,” she continues. “She’s a first-rate disciple and a committed follower of Jesus. She’s bold, bad and beautiful in God’s eyes. This woman’s simple act, led by the spirit, has a profound effect on Jesus and the disciples. He tells them when they dare criticize her for her lavishness, ‘Leave her alone.'”
Leave her alone, the congregation cries in response.
“In other words,” Moffett continues, ‘Let her worship me. Let her serve me. Leave her alone. She’s teaching you what you need to do.'”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at email@example.com.