Loud As The Rolling Sea: Jewel Graham
In 2014, Loud As The Rolling Sea guest host Dr. Kevin McGruder spent a warm summer afternoon talking to Jewel Graham in a wide ranging oral history interview that covered pretty much her whole life. She was a much loved faculty member at Antioch College for many years, deeply involved in supporting the Black students in the Antioch program for interracial education during turbulent times. But today, we'll hear about her life growing up in segregated Springfield, Ohio, and the challenging social justice work she did for the YWCA, both stateside and overseas.
Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):
Jewel Graham: My full name is Precious Jewel Freeman Graham. Freeman's my maiden name. Graham is my husband's name, and the rest is my name.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: And where you're at your home on Corry Street in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Where were you born?
Jewel Graham: I was born in Springfield.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: What was Springfield like when you were growing up?
Jewel Graham: Springfield was a thriving community when I was growing up. It was a manufacturing center. It was on forty and the trains came in and there were a lot there's lots of manufacturing. It was fairly open to Black men in the sense that it was hiring Black men in manufacturing jobs before a lot of other places were. It was a segregated community, except the schools were not segregated, schools were integrated. All of us went to the same schools. But all in all, it was you know, it was a pleasant place. I mean, it was, it wasn't unpleasant, you know.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: You had mentioned earlier that your parents moved from Georgia. What were their names and why did they move?
Jewel Graham: My father was Robert Lee Freeman, and my mother was Lula Belle Malone Freeman. They migrated to Ohio from Georgia around 1920. My father came from a farm background, my mother's people were tenant farmers.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: And with the school system, you said they were not segregated. What was your school life like?
Jewel Graham: My school life was . . . I had dual school life. I went to school with white children, and we were friends in school. You know, we got along very well, and there were some who lived not too far from me. And we walk home together and that was the end. It's interesting because when I go to high school reunions, the white students, white people, now people, have an entirely different memory of what it was like. They don't remember how segregated it was and how the Black kids just did not participate in school activities, except a few of us who didn't understand that it was not meant for us. And we would show up anyway for the Latin Club and the French club and the drama club and so on.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: And were you able to participate when you did show up?
Jewel Graham: Well, you know, high school clubs I was in. . . we did Robinson Crusoe. I have pictures of me and the other Black students who participated and stuff like that. But we had a very active high school life outside of the school. It was at the Y. . . YMCA and the YWCA. And we had social activities and we had service activities and, uh, we had all kinds of things.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: And these were segregated?
Jewel Graham: That was the Center Street branch of the YMCA and the Clark Street branch of the YWCA. And interestingly enough, those club pictures went into the yearbook as school activities. Yeah. But they didn't have anything to do with it. Yeah.
I was a very good student. And when the guidance counselors and teachers were talking about college, I assumed that they were talking to me, too, like they were talking to other kids who had done well in school. And so I was planning to go, thinking probably I would go to Ohio State. I wasn't really happy about it because at the time, Ohio State didn't allow Black students to live in the dormitories on campus. They had to find places in town. While I was thinking about what I would do, a neighbor, Ernestine Lucas, lived across the street from us who was a Fisk graduate, asked me to come over and talk to a Fisk recruiter who was coming, so I did that. They offered me a scholarship and I accepted the scholarship and went to Fisk.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: So what was Fisk like? That would have been in the early 40s,
Jewel Graham: In the early 40s, I graduated from high school in '42. I was at Fisk from 1942 to 1946. I remind you that was during the war. It was essentially a women's college. There were a few men, not very many, which meant that the women had to take the leadership positions on campus and they had to, you know, it was good. Fisk was good for me.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: What did you study?
Jewel Graham: I majored in sociology and minored in psychology. And don't ask me why, because that was a time when if you were a Black woman, you were going to go and teach. That was it. And if you were an educated Black women, you would teach. If you didn't get an education, you'd do hair. Or if you were talented, you might end up in a nightclub singing or something. But those were the options. I took sociology because I was interested in it and psychology. I worked for a couple of summers at Fisk at the Fisk Race Relations Institute, which was famous at the time and still a pretty respected, I think, organization. There are many wonderful things about Fisk that I remember.
The YWCA was hiring, had a very extensive hiring program, a lot of women got started in the YWCA. It was probably one of the very few places where women, white and Black, could get administrative, executive experience and planning experience. Anyway, I found a job in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And the thing is, though, the YWCA was one of the few organizations in the South, they were pioneers in a lot of ways with with Black people and Black issues and social justice issues. And the whole idea was it was trying to integrate its program and its staff. They wanted to include Black women. And they set up branches in order to serve Black women. But now they want to abolish branches, totally abolish branches and bring everybody under one roof. So I went as a program director, teenage program director to the YMCA, Grand Rapids, and I worked there for three years
Dr. Kevin McGruder: And that's late 40s.
Jewel Graham: It would be in the 40s. But Grand Rapids was a good experience for me. Now, this is another interesting thing, though. The president, I think she was president at the time of the YWCA. She was either president or chairperson of the board was Helen Wilkins Claytor. Her son is Roger Wilkins, and she had worked for the YWCA for a long time, the national YWCA and she a married person in Grand Rapids and stayed there and was active in the YWCA. But then Roger was growing up at the same time. And so but that was when I began. I had been active in the YMCA earlier in the Clark Street YWCA in Springfield. But I began to get a sense of what the YWCA was really about. It wasn't just about swimming pools. It had social justice issues that were important.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: When did you start getting involved with the World Y?
Jewel Graham: Now, that's the date that I do remember: 1975. I was on the national board already, but then they wanted me to run for the board of the worldwide Y. They called it the executive committee. And so I did that and I was elected.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: And about how many people were on that board?
Jewel Graham: There were 20 on the executive committee. And we met in Geneva every year. And it was a working board. So we had responsibilities. I did workshops in Botswana and I'd go to conferences in Chile and, you know, different places - go to visit the Ys of China. And that was another pivotal experience in my life. The whole business with the world wide Y. You know, I just saw all the women all over the world working on the same kinds of things just in different environments. And they had the same concerns. And they were wonderful.
Precious Jewel Freeman Graham, known as Jewel, passed away in 2015 after retiring as a professor of social work at Antioch College.
Jewel Graham was interviewed for this series in 2014, and his story was edited with help from community producer Amy Harper. Loud as the Rolling Sea is produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO and hosted by Dr. Kevin McGruder.
Funding for this project comes from The Yellow Springs Community Foundation, the Yellow Springs Brewery and from Rick and Chris Kristensen, Re/Max Victory and affiliates in Yellow Springs.