Throwback Thursday: How Jewell Kelly Changed the Lives of Hundreds of Students Through Music: a Black History Month Profile

Sitting in a government class surrounded by white students, Jewell Kelly was used to being the only Black woman in the room. She had accepted this as part of attending the newly integrated North Texas State for college. 

Overall, her experience at the school was positive. She minded her business, studied music, and worked diligently for her degree. When reflecting on her time at the newly integrated school, she doesn’t have much to talk about.

However, there was one particular incident that stood out. One day, a white boy turned to her and asked, “Why do you want to go to school with us anyway?”

Decades later, Kelly says she didn’t want to go to school with them. “I just wanted to get my education,” she says.

And get her education she did. And then, she helped hundreds of other students do the same thing.

Throughout her decades-long teaching career, Kelly had an immeasurable impact on the lives of her students and on Fort Worth ISD. She taught students who went on to become teachers like her, led some of the largest church choirs in the metroplex, or even became Grammy Award-winning artists.

Recently, she reunited with many of her former students to celebrate her birthday. On that day, the roles reversed. Kelly learned something from them: they had been listening the whole time. 

‘I was loved.’

Jewell Kelly feels like the Fort Worth she grew up in was a well-kept secret. Not a lot happened, and she said she grew up in the projects, but it’s a neighborhood she no longer recognizes. 

Her mother was a maid for Justin’s Boot Factory and her father was a chemical truck driver. Kelly attended I.M. Terrell, the only school for Black students in the area at the time. After graduating in 1957, she enrolled at North Texas State, which had recently integrated.

“I was acquainted with segregation. But the reason segregation did not go with me to North Texas is because, I guess, you can’t miss what you don’t have,” Kelly said. “I was loved. I was appreciated. Fort Worth was segregated, but I didn’t know it was segregated.” 

The Fort Worth Kelly describes was segregated, but it was also a place full of love and acceptance. “My world was not really segregated,” she said. 

Most days it didn’t bother her that she was the only Black student in the class, until that one day in her government class. 

She just wanted an education, but the prejudice was in him, she said. 

During her time in college, she worked hard for her degree and also participated in civil rights demonstrations. Kelly was part of a sit-in strike against segregated water fountains. 

Most of her college career focused on her education, Kelly knew the doors it would open for her.

Connecting through music

Sitting in a pew at a church called St. James, Kelly heard the most beautiful sound. The harmonies of different kinds of voices coming together painted a picture of her future: she had to teach music. 

That choir practicing was the most beautiful sound Kelly can recall. She had to figure out how they did it, and she spent decades chasing that sound. The rehearsal captured her, and it stuck with her.

Kelly’s connection with music is almost as old as her connection with her own mother. It seems like it’s almost always been a part of her. But it wasn’t until that day that she knew she’d teach.

Music classes change the dynamics of the classroom, which is why Kelly thinks it impacts the student so much. All day, students listen to their teachers. When it’s time for music class, the teacher listens to the student. 

Perhaps that moment in the church called back to her years later when she started Gospel Fest. After a UIL competition, Kelly and another teacher were upset about the kind of music they had to learn because of its difficulty. They wanted something the students would enjoy more.

With permission from the superintendent, Kelly started Gospel Fest, allowing students to learn and perform two different gospel songs. The tradition continued throughout Kelly’s tenure at Fort Worth ISD. It took a hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic but resumed this year.


In music, there’s a vulnerability required of the students, which means there’s a connection required by the teacher. The teacher is asking the students to give something of themselves for their craft. It’s a piece of their mind, but also their heart.

Kelly considers this a God-given gift. She cherished every moment watching her students light up when they performed music.

There are plenty of success stories in Kelly’s teaching career. Recently, her student Kirk Franklin won another Grammy. Her hundreds of students have scattered far and wide. However, she also remembers the students who didn’t pursue music as a career. Those who simply enjoyed music as a part of their day. 

She used to give students a ride home, and they’d tease her about her little brown Maxima, she said. She knows she wasn't teaching for the money – she’ll never be a millionaire. But at a birthday party her students threw for her this year, she learned they were listening to her the whole time. They recalled lessons, stories, and moments of wisdom she imparted to them.

“That’s a reward for teachers,” she said.