Marshall, Bella 1950–

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Bella Marshall 1950

Real estate executive

At a Glance


At the age of just 32, Detroiter Bella Marshall became one of the youngest womenand one of a handful of African Americansto head the finance department of a major American city. Marshall spent over a decade as director of Detroits fiscal activities, responsible for the financial health of a city that seemed at first to be tottering on the brink of budgetary collapse. By the time she left the post in the early 1990s, Detroit was well on its way to a spectacular rebound, and Marshall and her husband, Don Barden, had become one of the citys most well-connected and socially-active partnerships, involved in both luxury home development projects and the casino industry. Marshall is one of the richest African American women in the country, according to Essence magazine, who estimated her net worth at about $25 million.

Marshall was born across the border in Windsor, Canada, but grew up on the east side of Detroit. When she was eight, her father suffered a series of strokes that left him disabled, and he died when she was 19. Marshalls mother, Lillian, was an energetic woman, a clerical worker who strove to keep Marshall and her two siblings challenged intellectually. As a youth Marshall was enrolled in numerous youth organizations and activities, including the Girl Scouts, cheerleading, churchathletics, basketball, and baseball. My mother kept me in every organization known to modern man, Marshall told Detroit Free Press reporter Patricia Edmonds. I didnt have time to go out and get pregnant.

Inspired by a novel about a female attorney, Marshall decided on a career in law at a young age. She won two scholarships to Wayne State University in Detroit, and then earned her law degree from the University of Michigan. Hired by the Detroit office of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority in 1975 as staff counsel, she became its first female director as well as the youngest in the agencys history just three years later.

Marshalls rising star attracted the attention of Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, who was searching for someone to fill the post of city finance director that had been vacant for several months. The colorful mayor took Marshall out to dinner at an Italian restaurant, and as she later recalled in the interview with Edmonds, I dont know whether I talked him to death, or he was dieting, but he did not finish his food. So he offered me his leftovers, and I took them home..

Young also offered Marshall the job, and at the age of just 32 she became the first woman to hold the post in Detroit history. As finance director, she was given an enormous amount of responsibility: Marshall headed a staff of 500, was responsible for all of the citys banking and investments, and also was charged with reforming its beleaguered property-tax department. Furthermore, she battled tenaciously to upgrade the rating that Wall Street gave Detroits municipal bonds, considered a reliable sign of a citys financial health.

At a Glance

Born c. 1950 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada; daughter of Lillian (Simpson) Marshall; married Don Barden (a media and gaming-industry entrepreneur), 1988, Education: Earned undergraduate degree from Wayne State University; graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, c. 1975.

Career: Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Detroit, MI, staff attorney, 197578, director, 197882; City of Detroit, finance director, 198293; Waycor Development Co., president and chief executive officer, 1994-, and chief operating officer of Barden International, Inc.

Addresses: HomeDetroit, MI.

During the 1980s, Marshall became involved in a bitter fight, along with the Young Administration, to raise funds for, build, and operate a greatly contested trash-burning plant. Marshall also worked to arrange financing for a massive new Chrysler automotive plant on Detroits east side, where North Americas Jeep Cherokees are built. It was an $82,000 a year job, but as Marshall told Edmonds at the time, I work hard for my money. She regularly put in 14-hour days.

But Marshalls job also had its perks, and she moved inside Detroits circle of accomplished African American young professionals. In the mid-1980s she began dating Don Barden, at the time a cable-television system owner campaigning to win the lucrative contract for Detroits cable franchise. Both kept running into one another at the same civic and social functions, and they married in 1988. Barden later sold his Barden Cablevision and delved further into the real-estate and casino industries.

Marshall lost her job with the election of a new mayor, Dennis Archer, in 1993. The following year her husband appointed her president and chief executive officer of Waycor Development Company, a real-estate developer building new luxury homes in Detroitironically, a terrific sign of Detroits overall financial prosperity and symbolic of just how far it had come since 1982. Marshalls executive duties are not limited to the Detroit area, however: Waycor builds in St. Louis and other cities, and she is also chief operating officer of one of her husbands other business interests, an automobile manufacturing plant in Namibia.

While her husband is a generous contributor to the Democratic Party coffers, the couple are renowned local philanthropists as well, giving back to the community in which both were raised. TheDetroit Symphony Orchestra and the citys acclaimed Museum of African-American History have been beneficiaries of their largesse, and Marshall is active in numerous area institutions. In 1997 she was tapped to serve on team of community leaders given the task of reviewing the Detroit Public School systems troubled finances.

In 1998 Don Barden entered into a media and political battle with the Archer administration over casino owner-ship; Barden was unhappy with the mayors picks by which several other entrepreneurs received three lucrative licenses. As a result of Bardens efforts, a referendum was held that allowed county residents to vote for what became known as the Barden Proposal, that would have allowed one black-owned casino enterprise. Voters chose the mayors plan, however, though Barden had enlisted the help of pop singer Michael Jackson.

Marshall, who had her first child at the age of 41, lives in a palatial stone home in a mansion-lined street in northwest Detroit. The area is now home to many of the citys most prominent names in politics, business, and sports. Marshall is described as warm, energetic, a stylish dresser with a penchant for the highest heels, and a rapid-fire talker. Despite her list of achievements, Marshall always planned to stay in Detroit: I would like for my children to look at Cobo Hall or the Chrysler Jefferson Avenue plant, which I had a part in, and say, Isnt this a neat thing. It would be like my children touching the tips of their noses and saying, Gee Ive got a great noseits like my mothers nose.


Detroit Free Press, October 2, 1982, p. 1C; November 9, 1983; November 23, 1986; November 18, 1990, p. 3J; June 30, 1993, p. 1A; April 16, 1997.

Detroit News, January 5, 1997; February 20, 1997; October 10, 1997; June 24, 1998; October 9, 1998.

Essence, October, 1998.

Carol Brennan

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Marshall, Bella 1950–

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Marshall, Bella 1950–