NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Grace L. Hewell (1919 - 2008)
Dr. Hewell was born in Chattanooga and graduated from Spelman College in 1940. After receiving a master’s degree in social work from Atlanta University in 1943, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and became a second lieutenant while serving in Germany. From 1945 to 1950, she was a service club director with the U.S. armed forces in Europe.
She worked as a social worker with the St. Louis Housing Authority in the early 1950s and then became a public health educator with the New York City Department of Health.
She moved to Washington in 1960 to work as a program coordination officer at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services). She was assigned to the office of the assistant secretary for legislation.
During the first session of the 89th Congress in 1965, she was appointed education chief for the House Committee on Education and Labor, chaired by Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.), who had been her pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.
The 89th Congress was labeled “the education Congress” because of the passage of 15 education bills. However, a conference committee reached an impasse on provisions of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that would expand continuing education programs and would provide greater opportunities for historically black colleges to compete for federal funds.
Dr. Hewell helped Powell break the impasse and in the process forced the federal government to begin closing the gap between white and black education in the United States.
Wil Haygood, Powell’s biographer, described in a 1993 Boston Globe article how the New York congressman used his power and knowledge of the rules to make it more difficult for Southern House members to mass against the bill before it reached the House floor. Haygood, now with The Washington Post, quoted Dr. Hewell as saying: “It was the hardest job I ever had. Two or 3 o’clock in the morning I was on the floor of the House.”
Powell and President Lyndon B. Johnson considered the comprehensive education bill a magnificent achievement. So did Dr. Hewell.
She was an adult education program officer in the Office of Education for the New York region from 1967 to 1978 and later a consultant on educational telecommunications for the Department of Education.
She was a commission member for UNESCO’s Fourth International Conference on Adult Education from 1975 to 1980.
Dr. Hewell served on the executive board of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and was a life member of the National Council of Negro Women. When she retired from government service, she established a second residence in Chattanooga and helped then-Sen. Al Gore clean up a creek that had been described as “the most polluted and contaminated” in the South.