Legal Scholar Derrick Bell Dies at 80; Did Programs With Brooklyn Church

Derrick Bell


Francesca Norsen Tate
First Estate

Derrick Bell, a legal scholar and friend of First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, died on October 5. According to his New York Times obituary, he was 80 years old and had carcinoid cancer. He and his wife, Janet Dewart Bell, resided in Manhattan.

Bell was famous for his quest to expose what he saw as persistent racism in the United States — and did so through his writings and, according to the NY Times obit by Fred A. Bernstein, “provocative career moves.”

At the time of his death, Bell was a full-time visiting professor at New York University Law School, since 1990. He and the First Presbyterian Church Choir shared an annual tradition: he invited the ensemble, under Amy Neuner’s direction — to perform at his annual Enrichment Lectures at NYU. The 2011 lecture, held in March this year, interwove gospel music and legal education.

Professor Bell gained a reputation for resigning prestigious posts at law schools. The first black tenured professor and one of the first black deans at Harvard Law School, he resigned in protest over the school’s hiring practices. Earlier in his career, he had given up his job in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division rather than relinquish membership in the NAACP. He also gained a reputation as a raconteur — presenting his legal expertise about race relations in the form of allegories.

Prof. Bell is considered to be a pioneer of critical race theory. The NY Times obit explained this as being “a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even many of those intended to redress past injustices.” Bell’s 1973 book, Race, Racism and American Law, now in its sixth edition, is required- reading at many law schools.

NYU Law School’s website described him as a “devoted professor of constitutional law,” who “instilled in his students a deep sense of professional and ethical responsibility and encouraged them to confront complex issues about race and difference.”

The First Presbyterian Church’s weekly e-newsletter on October 13 announced that a memorial service for Professor Bell will be held on Thursday, November 3, at 6 p.m. at the Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, in Manhattan. His 81st birthday would have been Nov. 6.

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Pastor Simmons-Smith Dies; Led Cobble Hill Church

The Rev. Neville Simmons-Smith, as pictured at his 1969 installation at South Congregational Church. Photo courtesy of the family.

The Rev. Neville Nesbert Simmons-Smith, who served churches in Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, died on October 12 following a lengthy illness. He had reached his 84th birthday the previous day.

Born October 11, 1927, in Georgetown, British Guyana in South America, he was educated in England, and was ordained on July 3, 1959 by the Congregational Union of England and Wales.

Pastor Simmons-Smith completed graduate studies at the New York Theological Seminary (Class of 1973). He did continuing education at Blanton-Peale Institute for Religion and Psychotherapy, with a focus in pastoral and marital counseling; and St. Luke’s Medical Center School of Clinical Pastoral Education Hospital Chaplaincy.

He devoted most of his ministry in New York City in parish and chaplaincy work. He also served extensively on religious and civic boards and commissions at the citywide, statewide and national levels.

Simmons-Smith was installed in 1969 as the senior minister at South Congregational Church in Cobble Hill. He served at this church, which once stood at the corner of Court and President Streets, until its closure in March, 1993.

A member of Plymouth Church since 1994, Simmons-Smith was also a beloved member of this congregation. He was particularly active in providing pastoral counseling and care to elderly members of the church. He also occasionally preached at Sunday services here. He is survived by his wife, Violet. His funeral was held last Saturday at Plymouth Church.

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Plymouth Church Is Scene Of Civil War Re-Enactment

The role of Plymouth Church in the Civil War and anti-slavery movement will come alive next weekend. Plymouth Church pays homage to the historic fight against slavery in America and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with a free community event, “The Civil War and Plymouth Church,” on Saturday, October 29. Featuring re-enactors representing the legendary 14th Brooklyn and 1st Long Island regiments, the event will immerse visitors in the world of mid-19th century Brooklyn, a time when Union Army troops prepared for deployment and the Plymouth congregation continued the fight to abolish slavery. Tours of the National Historic Landmark sanctuary on Orange Street, the home pulpit of Henry Ward Beecher, will be conducted throughout the day, Members of NYC Sacred Harp will perform Civil War-era “shape note” choral singing, beginning at 2 p.m. In 1861, as civil warfare engulfed the United States, the city of Brooklyn could reasonably claim to stand at the moral center of the anti-slavery movement. It was at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights that famed minister Henry Ward Beecher preached sermons and staged mock “slave auctions” that galvanized the nation. His sister and fellow Plymouth member, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had sounded a national call for abolition in 1852 with her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Members of the Plymouth congregation — from renowned activists like Lewis Tappan to hundreds of citizens — worked tirelessly to help escaped slaves and raise funds to equip new soldiers.

Two of the regiments that Plymouth Church, directly supported during that time, the 14th Brooklyn Infantry Regiment and the 1st Long Island Volunteers, will be represented at the October 29 event through non-profit organizations dedicated to preserving the history of these two companies. 14th Brooklyn, known as “The Red Legged Devils” because of their brightly colored “chasseur” style of uniform, earned their fame at the First Battle of Bull Run, and participated in such battles as Second Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg. (Contemporary members of the 14th Brooklyn also participated in battle scenes of Gettysburg, the 1993 movie.) The 1st Long Island regiment was initially sponsored by Rev. and Mrs. Beecher, earning them the nickname “Beecher’s Pets.”

Two family members joined the company: son Henry Beecher as lieutenant, and brother James Beecher as chaplain. The 1st Long Island fought at Yorktown, Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor and Gettysburg, among other battles.

Visitors to “The Civil War and Plymouth Church” may learn more at the encampment at Plymouth’s Beecher Garden, on Orange St. between Hicks and Henry streets. This free event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine. Tours of the church sanctuary and gallery will also be offered throughout the day.

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Religious Newsmakers Honored Catholic Charities of Brooklyn Receives Award for Website

Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens’ website, developed by SankyNet, was recently recognized by the Web Marketing Association and was presented with the 2011 Non-Profit Standard of Excellence WebAward for Outstanding Achievement in Web Development.

The Annual International WebAward Competition, now in its 15th year, is the premier award recognition program for web developers and marketers worldwide. The standards that were judged included layout, content and ease of use for the intended target audience.

Since SankyNet launched the re-designed website earlier this year, Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens has experienced a dramatic increase in web viewership from 6,000 views per month to nearly 40,000 views. Through the website,, Catholic Charities is able to link thousands of individuals every day to much-needed services and provide access to our nearly 180 programs serving the most vulnerable citizens: from families, children and youth, to seniors, refugees, new immigrants, persons with disabilities, those struggling with mental illness, and the formerly homeless.

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Son of Micah Awards Honor One’s Dedication to Community

The New Utrecht Church last Sunday presented its Son of Micah Awards to honor men for their dedication to the community.

Accepting Son of Micah Awards were Michael Blydenburgh, church sexton (custodian) of New Utrecht Church; Rev. Charles Gardner of the Metropolitan Baptist Church; and Larry Forni, trustee of the Friends of Historic New Utrecht.

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Church Concerts

SIREN Baroque, an all-female ensemble, comes to First Presbyterian Church for a concert of early Italian Baroque composers SIREN is an innovative group that specializes in historically informed performance of baroque and early-classical works. Two sopranos, violins, cello, viola da gamba, and harpsichord comprise the ensemble. Members of SIREN will play during First Church’s worship service on October 30; and will then present a concert on Friday, November 4, at 8 p.m. $15 suggested donation per person. First Presbyterian Church is at 124 Henry St.

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Guitarist Peter Griggs returns to Zion German Lutheran Church, where he performed several years ago, for a classical guitar concert.

The program, “500 Years of Music for Guitar,” is presented on Sunday, October 30 at 1:30 p.m. A free-will offering will be accepted. Zion Church is at 125 Henry St., across the street from First Presbyterian Church.

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First Presbyterian Church presents another concert — this time with a Halloween theme.

Organists Wil Smith and Meg Wilhoite, and video artist Nathan Selikoff present “A Night of Spooky Classics”, a family-friendly evening of organ works from favorite dearly-departed classical composers. Some works by living composers will also be played. As part of the concert, live video will projected onto the organ pipes and back wall of the sanctuary. Attendees are invited to embrace the spine-chilling sound of the organ in First Presbyterian’s beautiful, possibly-haunted, gothic sanctuary on Friday, October 28, at 7:00 p.m. $5 suggested donation per person.

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Filed under Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn People, Cobble Hill, Obituaries, Religion

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