Elizabeth Jemison ’04 Felt Empowered to Address Complex Questions

Headshot of Elizabeth Jemison ’04

Elizabeth Jemison ’04


Almost every Friday during her 7th-grade year, Elizabeth Jemison ’04, Ph.D., would meet the rest of her Facing History and Ourselves class in Rose Theater to watch documentaries chronicling the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis and the sanitation strike of 1968. 

As a self-proclaimed “nerd,” she enjoyed delving into the deeper context and implications of these historical events. Still, she and her classmates could not help but notice that the documentaries predominately featured men. So, they asked their then history teacher, current Director of St. Mary’s Community Fund Susan Whitten Graber, “What were the women doing during this time?”

“Rather than saying we don’t have the film for that or let me try to find a movie featuring women, she bought a video camera,” shared Elizabeth. Led by Graber, the students created a documentary featuring the voices and viewpoints of women. “She gathered a group of 15 students and helped us research, identify, and interview different women, including wives of sanitation workers and people involved in different aspects of the movement.” 

How Graber encouraged her students not only to ask questions but to find answers left a lasting impact on Elizabeth, who now encourages students of her own as an Associate Professor of Religion at Clemson University.

“It was incredibly empowering to ask those questions and get a response of, ‘Let’s go research this history. Let’s ask the women of that time what their experiences were like.’”

Elizabeth, a historian of American religion, has made a career of researching and asking questions, focusing on the relationships between religion and race, gender, and politics during the 19th and 20th centuries. She published her first book, Christian Citizens: Reading the Bible in Black and White in the Postemancipation South, in 2020.

Recently, she was invited to be a featured speaker in Memphis at the Facing History and Ourselves annual benefit for the Southeast region. Elizabeth shared that her interest in exploring the complex role of religion in American society can be traced back to her 7th-grade Facing History and Ourselves course. The curriculum, as taught by Graber, empowered her to “think about history and its moral obligations in the present.”

She began to understand “that history wasn’t just learning about the past. It wasn’t just facts, dates, and names. History shaped the moral framework of our society, and we as current citizens and future adults could learn from the actions of people in the past to inform how we choose to engage with the world.”

Elizabeth aims to emulate the environment of her 7th-grade class at Clemson, where she challenges her college students to think differently and more broadly about the complex history and traditions of religion in this country. 

“We often think of our history classes as memorizing dates and names. I actually make a point of not asking my students to memorize dates. I want them to think instead about how these stories are complicated. Who gets to tell the stories we hear? Whose voices are not in our stories? And why?”

She also ensures “that students have space to talk to each other, especially students with very different views and perspectives.”

From her time as a Facing History student, Elizabeth learned that hearing classmates share their experiences or perspectives on reading is far more impactful than any of her lectures. 
“Talking to each other is the most effective way for them to learn,” she said.

And just as Graber and several of her teachers at St. Mary’s did, Elizabeth pushes her college students out of their comfort zone to help them find their own voice. “My teachers at St. Mary’s didn’t just teach—they mentored. They cared about the kind of person you were and how you were finding your way in the world. They cared about the big questions you brought to the classroom.”

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Additional Images

Image provided by Facing History and Ourselves

Elizabeth was invited to be a featured speaker at the Facing History and Ourselves annual benefit for the Southeast region in Memphis.

Elizabeth and former Middle School teacher and current Director of St. Mary’s Community Fund Susan Whitten Graber