The Victorious Jewel Graham

Jewel arrived at Antioch College to work as an administrative assistant in the Antioch Program for Interracial Education. She advanced to establish Antioch’s social work program, where she taught courses in social work, law, race, women’s studies, cross-cultural studies and writing.

By Kateri Kosta

On November 30, 2015, the Antioch Community lost one of the brightest stars in our constellation—Precious Jewel Freeman Graham—after nine decades on this earth, and 30 years of service as a professor and founder of Antioch’s social work program. If all members of the Antioch College community are called to strive to win victories for humanity, Jewel’s legacy stands as singularly victorious. She touched the hearts and minds of so many through her years at Antioch and beyond.

 Jewel’s exuberant spirit inspired colleagues, students, friends, townspeople and family. Her limitless thirst for knowledge started with a childhood passion for books and learning. That thirst nurtured her to become a gifted teacher, a skilled writer and an accomplished leader. In 1964, Jewel arrived at Antioch College to work as an administrative assistant in the Antioch Program for Interracial Education. She advanced to assistant director before leaving that post in 1969 to establish Antioch’s social work program, where she taught courses in social work, law, race, women’s studies, cross-cultural studies and writing. 

“Jewel was my teacher, and later my colleague and mentor, and so much of what I truly know and who I am can be attributed to her guidance and inspiration,” said former Antioch College President Bob Devine. “When Jewel earned her law degree at the University of Dayton at age 50, I was in awe. She told me that so much of social work involved law that she felt as though legal studies ought to be part of the social work curriculum.”

Jewel’s commitment to Antioch College extended beyond the classroom. In 1965, Al Denman joined the faculty as a professor of philosophy, law and religion and the College pastor. Around that time, Jewel and Denman were named Danforth Associates through the Danforth Foundation. Together, they were charged with helping students and faculty relate more as people, rather than adversaries. 

“Jewel brought composure and a rational, cheerful attitude,” said Denman. “Her calming and directing presence were vital to the College.”

Always a popular teacher, her classes were well attended and lively. Her former students sing her praises from throughout the diaspora. “Her ability to draw students out, to explore their feelings and perceptions, and to guide them in the hard work of very sensitive reflection was amazing to me. The weekly sessions provided me with an education into the dynamics of race and class and my own white privilege,” said Devine.     

Jewel’s former student, Maceo Cofield ’71 said, “It was 20 years before I heard a term that described my feelings in first meeting Jewel: active listening. I was a high school student, and it was amazing to sit with Jewel and realize that this person was listening to me. For the next 50 years, every time I met with Jewel, I always got the feeling that she was 100 percent there for me. Total attention. She was critical to the success of the largest group of minority students ever to graduate from the College in 1971. Jewel didn’t act as your parent, but you wanted to achieve for her, to make her proud, because she was such an important part of your life.”

Karla Pearcy-Marson ’85 was one of many more former students who was profoundly affected by her. “Jewel Graham is undoubtedly the reason I became a social worker. When I started my studies at Antioch, I just knew I wanted to make a contribution to humanity through some type of helping profession. I remember going to a lecture of Jewel’s, where she shared some of her own journey as an attorney and social worker, pushing for social change and equity for women, girls, and communities of color. She inspired me and lit a spark. I thought, ‘Here is a woman who is really making a difference on the global scale.’ She showed me that there are many ways to ignite positive change in vulnerable communities, which went way beyond academics. Now, even with 30 years of social work under my belt, I still ask myself, ‘What would Jewel do?’ in many professional situations, which have ranged from working with migrant farm workers in Florida, refugees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, health workers in Sierra Leone, to pregnant women struggling with addictions in Oregon.”

Jewel’s passion for learning and teaching was matched by her passion for creativity in many domains—from words, painting, textiles, sculpture and music to physical activity. An avid exerciser, she watched the construction of the Little Miami bike path that runs along Corry Street in Yellow Springs between the College and Glen Helen. She walked it for many years, often with a walking stick balanced on her head. “She had such energy,” said Denman, “both intellectual and physical.” And she loved to say she was fascinated with ideas.

Upon learning of Jewel’s passing, former Antioch College President Mark Roosevelt remarked in an email to staff and Trustees, “Jewel was an exceptional person, of remarkable depth, insight and perspective. Getting to know her has been one of the great pleasures of my time here. She came to visit me often. Her basic message was buck up, be strong, even tough—that the situation called for backbone not retreat. She, and her visits, came to mean a great deal to me.”

Jewel’s influence extended far beyond Yellow Springs. In 1975, Jewel was named Social Worker of the Year by the Miami Valley chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She had also been involved with the YWCA since she was a teenager, and in 1987 she was the second black woman to be elected President of the World YWCA. Jewel was named to the Greene County Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982, and was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988.

She was honored in 2006 with the J.D. Dawson Award for service to Antioch, and Devine said, “Her honors and involvements outside of Antioch were numerous. She conscientiously reminded her faculty colleagues to carefully examine non-traditional career trajectories and organizational engagement when evaluating women and African American candidates for faculty positions.” 

Around the time the College was preparing to re-open, Al Denman and Jennifer Berman ’84 (now the associate director of restorative practices) were asked to form a task force on community governance. Shortly thereafter, Denman saw Jewel at the Yellow Springs Farmer’s Market and told her about their task force. “Jewel was intensely interested. She committed to joining on the spot,” he said. “She thought it was important to be a member of institutions because institutions outlive individuals. She wanted to make (Antioch) an institution worthy of surviving her.”

“I loved Jewel Graham. She’ll be sorely missed by a lot of people,” said Cofeild. “I guarantee a lot of people around the country waited just a little too long to get back to Yellow Springs to say thank you so much. She was a shape-shifter, a little bitty person, but when you needed her agreement, her approval, she became a giant in front of your eyes.”

Pearcy-Marston echoed those sentiments. “I am deeply grateful for what Jewel offered me—how she challenged and inspired me, showing us that we all can (and should) make a positive impact on the world.”

Denman said, with a chuckle, “I think I still remember her old phone number! We felt simpatico about an awful lot of things relating to the College. We called each other ‘buddy.’ She was my buddy and I was her buddy.”

A memorial service was held on April 30, 2016 in the Glen Helen Vernet Ecological Center. Thanks to all the friends and alumni of Antioch College who shared their memories of Jewel. Thanks to the Yellow Springs News for providing Jewel Graham’s obituary for use in this article.