Her great grandmother was a Cherokee who walked the Trail of Tears and she remembered women’s suffrage, but Helen Graves didn’t live long enough to see her dream of a female president. The widow of a longtime seminary dean and mother of a seminary president died Sept. 6, a few months after celebrating her 105th birthday.
Born Helen Elizabeth Cannan in Eldorado, Illinois, the centenarian attended Southern Illinois University and graduated from the Woman’s Missionary Union Training School in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1937 she married Allen Graves, dean of the School of Christian Education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for a quarter century. Tom Graves, one of her six children, was president of Baptist Seminary at Richmond 1991-2007.
A life-long Democrat, Mrs. Graves proudly voted for Hillary Clinton for president at age 102. She remembered the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 in comments quoted by the Louisville Courier-Journal.
“I went with my mother when she voted for the first time,” she recalled. “She told me I would probably live to see a woman elected president of the United States.”
“I have been interested in women’s issues all my life,” she continued. “I began to admire Hillary when both she and my youngest daughter, who are contemporaries, became lawyers for children.”
Prior to his hiring at Southern Seminary in 1955, she accompanied her husband through pastorates in Florida, Virginia and Oklahoma. After his retirement in 1980, they traveled to Nigeria, where Allen Graves taught as a senior professor at the seminary’s mission-field campus in Ogbomosho. He died in 1991 at age 76.
In 1944 Helen Graves wrote Growing in Bible Knowledge, a graded training union study that was translated into several languages.
In 1977 she spoke optimistically about a growing consensus that barriers were coming down for women in ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention.
“If we can change the Jewish concept of the Saturday Sabbath, then we can change the Jewish concept of women in the outer courtyard,” she told Baptist Press, adding her view that women can serve in any capacity where a man serves providing they have been called by God.
“That day is coming when women will be leading, and I can’t see any place in convention life that a woman is not capable of serving in,” she said.
In recent years Mrs. Graves moved from Louisville to North Carolina. Her life journey ended at Hospice Solace Center in Asheville. She is survived by five children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
While in Louisville, she was active many years at Crescent Hill Baptist Church. She later joined East Baptist Church, a congregation that ministered in a transitional neighborhood before shuttering in 1993, and was ordained as a deacon. In recent years she belonged to Broadway Baptist Church.
Memorial services are scheduled at 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at Givens Highland Farms in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Memorial gifts may go to Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville or be designated to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s “Southwest Immigrant Relief Fund” to aid refugees at the Mexico-U.S. border.