For decades, Jewel Bell was a staple of King University, a small Christian college in Bristol, Tenn. She was a confidante for students and later a gatekeeper to the president’s office.
She was also a living witness to events big and small at King and the larger world: from the desegregation of Bristol and King and the broader civil rights movement to an expansion of student enrollment and programs at King and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re talking about a person who, more than anyone else, is the thread that runs through the history of King since the middle of the last century,” President Alexander Whitaker said. “Then, it blows one’s mind even more to think that her institutional history is not just her own but what she absorbed from people who’ve been there decades before. So through Jewel, we’re really connected with the school well into the early 20th century, which is amazing.”
Bell retired from the university this month on her 70th work anniversary and a week before her 93rd birthday. King administrators think she’s one of the longest-serving employees in higher education—she’s certainly the university’s longest—and Bell’s tenure surprised even her.
“If anyone had told me I was going to spend 70 years on that campus, I would’ve said, ‘Absolutely not,’ but the kids were so good to me,” she said.
Bell, a Bristol native, had never visited King’s campus before 1952, when she started working as a temporary maid in the women’s dorm. At the time, she was the university’s only Black employee, and the campus was still segregated. Her temporary position eventually became permanent, and she was promoted in 1961 to run the campus telephone switchboard and supervise the new women’s residence hall. She later moved to the president’s office, where she worked as an executive assistant. She’s worked under 10 different presidents during her 70 years.
“The fact that anyone works anywhere, but particularly at a college, for 70 years is quite amazing,” Whitaker said, adding that there are few King alumni alive today who can remember the university without Bell.
Through her roles as the switchboard operator and executive assistant to the president, Whitaker said, Bell was the face and voice of King for decades.
“To have that history about the people, institutions and events right outside my door was phenomenal,” he said. “She was also a help to anyone who walked through that office. She was the person you first saw when you came to visit and the person everyone wanted to see when they returned.”
Bell’s husband was a veteran of World War II and worked three jobs to take care of the family, she said. But she didn’t want to sit at home all day, so she took a job at King.
“I’m not a typical lady,” she said.
She initially earned 60 cents an hour—“not enough to buy a hot dog,” she said. Her salary increased during her early years at King, and she eventually earned higher wages.
“When I got to a dollar and a quarter, I thought I died and gone to heaven,” she said.
During her time at King, the university started accepting Black students, and her son was one of the first Black students to attend King.
Whitaker said integration at King was treated as “not a big deal,” which he attributes to Bell’s role at the university.
“Her presence on the campus not only affected that era but continues to affect King’s character as a welcoming place, irrespective of race,” Whitaker said. “Jewel was very much a central part of that. Not only by being there and being so visible but also by all she did, accomplished and how loved she was.”
Bell said she was often the only Black woman in a group of white students or employees, but she didn’t experience harassment and heard the N-word used only once—and she handled it.
“If they did say something, they would’ve been taken care of by the dean and president,” Bell said. “They constantly let people know that Jewel is part of the college.”
Pat Flanagan, former chair of the music department at King, met Bell while he was a student.
“She served as a hostess of the college, especially the women’s dorm,” he recalled.
When he returned to King as a professor, Flanagan said he would walk by Bell’s desk daily to talk with her.
“Jewel represents everything that’s good and positive about King,” he said. “I have a Ph.D. in musicology. She has a Ph.D. in life … She helped me grow up and become an adult. There’s no doubt about it.”
Bell’s time at King has included a myriad of honors, from awards for distinguished service to a campus street and scholarship bearing her name. Former Tennessee governor Bill Haslem declared her a colonel aide-de-camp in 2017, which recognizes Tennessee citizens for outstanding achievement. Last Christmas, she was the grand marshal of Bristol’s Christmas parade.
“The real legacy she has is not going to be street names and awards,” Whitaker said. “It’s really going to be the fact that thousands of students that [have] come through our doors since 1952 have been touched by this remarkable woman.”
Bell, who is referred to as the “Queen of King” and called “Mamma Bell” by some students, said students always treated her like a mother. When she was working in the dorms, some students would call her home at night for help with emergencies such as when a peer was drunk and vomiting.
Intoxicated students risked expulsion, Bell said. She would offer advice over the phone to students on how to take care of an intoxicated classmate and clean up the related mess.
Now that Bell is retired, she said she has simple plans: to clean her house and get back involved with the YWCA of Bristol. She served on the organization’s Board of Directors for several years.
“I’m going to miss this place,” she said. “It was my second home.”