Longtime educator Rev. Dr. Doris Graham attended a one-room schoolhouse for Black students called Attucks Elementary, once located in Clayton.
“Mrs. Jackson would teach first grade in row one,” Graham said. “And when she was done teaching, she would move down to row two — second grade. And row three was third grade.”
The way Mrs. Jackson organized her classroom to include both peer learning and individual instruction is something Graham will never forget.
In fourth grade, Graham attended a majority-white school in the City of St. Louis — a completely different world from Attucks Elementary.
“This is what I remember,” she said. “I was told to put my best foot forward, wherever I go: ‘Do your best, and let God do the rest.’”
These formative experiences had a significant impact on Graham’s 38-year career as a teacher and administrator in the St. Louis Public School District, she said. They also fueled her fight for equity as a teacher-union organizer, a board member for 23 years in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, and as a board trustee for St. Louis Community College for the past eight years.
As an ordained preacher, Graham’s favorite song in church is, “If I Can Help Somebody,” which she said was also one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorites.
“That’s my mantra, and it means so much to me,” she said. “I’m not doing this for any show, form or fancy. As my mother, Josephine Dampier, always told me, you do it from your heart.”
Graham began her career at SLPS’ Clark Elementary in 1967 as a fifth-grade teacher, just after graduating from Harris Teachers College. She became a reading specialist and even co-hosted the “Reading is Terrific Show,” a motivational reading program on the radio station KSLH.
Early in her career, she was among a group of Black teachers whom the district transferred to majority-white schools in South St. Louis as part of integration in the late 1970s. At Shepard School, she faced discrimination and found herself using the same lessons she learned as a young girl.
“I had a wonderful supervisor,” Graham said. “She said, ‘Doris, you keep doing the good job that you’re doing and win over the parents.’ And I did.”
Soon, she had a waiting list to get into her class, and white parents were pleading with her to teach their children. She stayed at Shepard School for 14 years.
Graham achieved her master’s degree in elementary administration/principalship in 1970 from the University of Missouri—St. Louis, and then obtained her doctorate educational administration/superintendency from Saint Louis University in 1979. That was also the year she became a strike leader and walked the picket line for 56 days. Graham served on the executive board of the St. Louis Teachers Union, Local 420 AFL-CIO, for more than 15 years, and she was one of the negotiators for the 1979 strike.
“We came out with wonderful benefits,” Graham said. “And, some of those benefits, the St. Louis Public Schools teachers are living on them right to this day.”
In 1988 while teaching at Shepard School, Berkeley Mayor Ted Hoskins called her and asked her to run for the Ferguson-Florissant School Board.
“In my letter, I said I am running for this board specifically to represent children and parents that look like me, but in general for everybody,” Graham said. “And that’s what I did because the voiceless needed a voice to speak up for them.”
She stayed on the board for 23 years. Soon after, she was elected to be a member of the St. Louis Community College Board of Trustees, where she has served for eight years, and she has four more years left in her current term.
It was fitting to spend the end of her teaching career as assistant principal at Ames Visual and Performing Arts Elementary School in St. Louis, she said.
“I got a chance to do what I love to do,” said Graham, again noting that she’s a preacher. “Every time we had a program, I’d be the emcee.”
She retired in 2005, and SLPS colleagues still share fond memories of her, said Dr. Paula D. Knight, SLPS deputy superintendent of academics.
“Dr. Graham was truly a steward of leadership to the new administrators,” Knight said. “When I was appointed as the principal of Waring ABI in 2000, Dr. Graham was one of the first administrators to embrace me as an aspiring leader. She has always been supportive and truly a loss to SLPS when she retired.”
Graham also holds a master of arts in pastoral studies from the Aquinas Institute of Theology. She is a dedicated church member at Prayer Tabernacle Baptist Church. Her husband, Jerry, and her family have been big supporters throughout her life and career, she said.
Graham has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the St. Louis Teachers Union and the Legacy Award for Community Service from the National Council of Negro Women Inc. Gateway Metropolitan Section. She also was recognized by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority as one of its Women Making a Difference honorees.
And on Saturday, October 17, Graham will receive the 2020 Lifetime Achiever Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education virtual gala.
Knight said, “Dr. Graham is deserving of such a prestigious honor — congratulations!”
The foundation will foster over $1.95 million in scholarships and grants this year for area youth and educators — which aligns well with Graham’s life work and mantra.
“If you can be the vessel that God can use to help somebody go higher in life, please do it,” said Graham. “You have a mouth – open up your mouth and speak. But speak with love and encourage them. If it had not been for people in my life, I would not be where I am today.”
The 33rd Annual Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Virtual Gala Weekend will be celebrated online as free virtual events on Friday and Saturday, October 16 and 17 on stlamerican.com, the St. Louis American’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. For additional details on how to participate, please visit givebutter.com/SaluteEdu.