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Longtime civil rights activist leaving post

“We’ve come a long way, but I still see a lot of things in our society today that I saw when I was 20 years old,” says Jewel L. Hall, who’s retiring from the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Born in 1932 and raised on a small farm in Monroe, La., Jewel L. Hall didn’t think there was anything unusual about segregation.

The “colored” folks sat in the rear of the bus, conducted their daily transactions from the “colored only” window of businesses, went to segregated churches, swimming pools, movie theaters and schools, “where the books were the raggedy old hand-me-downs from the white schools,” she recalled.

“There was separate everything, but if it’s all you know, then you don’t think anything about it,” said Hall, 85.

By the time she was a teenager, however, she was thinking about it a lot and came to understand just how “hideous, unfair and damaging to the soul” segregation was, she said.

With guidance from her schoolteacher mother, railroad worker father and carpenter grandfather, Hall learned that her way out of the stifling morass of segregation was education.

Born Jewel Louise Cyrus, Hall has traveled far from Monroe in the intervening years. She was a teacher, a civil rights activist and for the last 28 years a member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council, an organization she co-founded and served as president.

Hall retired from the council Thursday to devote more time to taking care of her adult grandson, who lives with her and is recovering from a medical issue.

“I have other things I want to do, and the older you get, the slower you get and the longer it takes,” she said. “Twenty eight years out of 85 is about a third of my life that I worked for this organization, so I’ve served my time and I’ve done my best.”

Doing her best was part of the family creed, she said.

“My family culture stressed reading, writing and reason. My great-grandmother, who was born a slave, was educated in secret by the white landowner who was her biological father. My grandfather used to say, ‘Once you got it between your ears, nobody can take it away from you.’ ”

Hall took that message to heart. She received her bachelor of science degree from Grambling College, now Grambling State University in Louisiana, where she majored in biology, mathematics and chemistry. She then taught high school math and science in Oak Grove, La., before moving to Michigan, where she earned her master of arts degree in teaching from the University of Michigan.

She married Fred J. Hall, a cashier in the parts department at a General Motors plant, in 1955. The couple set up home in Saginaw, had two children, and Hall taught high school math and science for 22 years.

Jewel Hall in her Rio Rancho home. After 28 years with the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council, Hall is retiring. “I’ve served my time, and I’ve done my best,” she said. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“When I first went there, I could not get a job,” she said. “They let me substitute, and eventually one teacher was unable to return to the school because of illness, so they hired me on as a permanent substitute for the rest of the year. Later, they hired me full time. Out of 500 teachers in Saginaw at the time, there may have been eight black teachers.”

Hall and her husband moved to Albuquerque in 1977 after she got an offer from Albuquerque Public Schools to teach math and science, first at Albuquerque High School, then at Sandia High School. She retired in 1993, the same year her husband died.

In the meantime, Hall volunteered with the AARP, was a president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, a president of the Albuquerque Northwest Retired Educators Association, chaired the TV-I (now CNM) Emeritus College Advisory Committee, led an Albuquerque tutorial program for students, was elected to the first Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education, co-founded the Albuquerque Christian Leadership Conference, served on the board of Storehouse West, was inducted into the Senior Hall of Fame, and received a host of awards for teaching, leadership and community service.

For a while, she also served as president of the Rio Rancho branch of the NAACP, where she got into a dispute with the leadership of the Albuquerque branch, who  she charged had turned it into a social club and had lost sight of its mission to promote racial equality and advancement of African-Americans. The NAACP national office stepped in and forced Hall to step aside.

“I guess I was too militant for them, so they kicked me out,” she said, laughing.

In 2012, her attention again turned to Saginaw when her 49-year-old son, who had mental health issues, reportedly stole a cup of coffee from a convenience store. Eight police officers brandishing firearms surrounded him outside the store.

Hall’s son pulled out a small pocketknife in response, and police unleashed a volley of 46 bullets, hitting him 14 times, according to news reports.

Hall filed a lawsuit against the department, which they settled out of court.

“It’s just blood money,” she said. “It doesn’t ease the pain.”

Noting the spate of police shootings of unarmed black men in recent years, the mass killing of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist, the march of Ku Klux Klansmen, Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., and the ongoing protest by NFL players against endemic racism in society, Hall could only shake her head.

“We’ve come a long way, but I still see a lot of things in our society today that I saw when I was 20 years old,” she said. “It’s just sad.”