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Jerry Donal Jewell was the first African American to serve in the Arkansas Senate in the twentieth century. He was also Arkansas’s first ever African-American acting governor, albeit for only a temporary four-day period during Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. Jewell moved his dental practice from North Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1978, where he continued to work during his political career and up until his death in 2002.
Jerry Jewell was born on September 16, 1930, in Chatfield (Crittenden County). His parents James M. Jewell and Ruth Lee Taylor Jewell, who were both sharecroppers, came from Mississippi. He had four sisters, only two of whom survived past infancy. Around 1936, Jewell and his family moved to West Memphis (Crittenden County), where his father worked for a while for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and then an oil company.
While growing up in West Memphis, Jewell attended segregated schools in two different districts. He then attended a boarding school in west Tennessee, where he completed his high school education. He made the honor roll at all of the schools and was active in sports teams.
In 1949, Jewell attended the Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N) in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). He majored in pre-medical and pre-dental. Jewell then studied dentistry at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, graduating in 1957. He then joined the Army Dental Corps and served in Texas and Missouri for two years. Jewell married Ometa Payne; they had five children.
In 1959, Jewell moved to North Little Rock, where he set up a dental practice at 103½ East 2nd Street; it was later relocated to Little Rock. The same year, he became a member of the Little Rock branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1963, he became branch president, taking over from the Reverend J. C. Crenchaw. He held the office until 1967. In 1965, Jewell became president of the NAACP Arkansas State Conference of branches.
Jewell was elected to the Arkansas Senate in 1972, making him the first black state senator in the twentieth century. He was a member of the Senate until 1994. During his Senate career, he served as chair and vice chair of the Legislative Affairs Committee, chair of the Agricultural Economic Development Committee, chair of the Retirement Committee, chair of the Education Committee, and vice chair of the Insurance and Commerce Committee. He also served on the Energy Committee.
In 1992, Jewell was elected president pro tempore of the Arkansas Senate. In that capacity, when Governor Jim Guy Tucker went to Washington DC to attend President Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993, Jewell became acting governor of Arkansas from Sunday, January 17, at 7:00 a.m. until Wednesday, January 21, at 4:00 p.m. (there being no lieutenant governor since Tucker assumed the office of governor upon Clinton’s election to the presidency). He was the first African American ever to hold that position.
However, the four days were not without controversy. Jewell pardoned two convicts and extended executive clemency to three others. The most notable of those pardons was that of Tommy McIntosh, the son of Robert “Say” McIntosh, who was convicted in 1987 of cocaine possession and intent to distribute, and sentenced to fifty years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Upon release, Tommy McIntosh failed to make his monthly payments, paying less than $4,000 of his fine before it was canceled in 2003. Many believe that Jewell lost his Senate seat in the 1994 Democratic primary elections to Bill Walker in part because of these actions.
Jewell died on August 17, 2002. His body lay in state at the Arkansas State Capitol. He is buried at Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock.
For additional information:George, Emmett. “Jerry Donal Jewell First Black Pro Tem of Senate, LR Dentist.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 20, 2002, p. 4B.
Kirk, John A. Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940–1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
Menifield, Charles E., and Stephen D. Shaffer, eds. Politics in the New South: Representation of African Americans in Southern State Legislatures. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Sarah RivaUniversity of Arkansas at Little Rock
Last Updated 12/2/2017
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