The Racial Identity of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: A Case Study in Racial Ambivalence and Redefinition.
Powell developed his reputation for aggressive, outspoken leadership as a young man in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He led protests that secured thousands of jobs for African Americans in New York City. In 1941, he became the first African American elected to the New York City Council. Four years later, he was the first African American to enter the United States Congress from New York City. Until the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950's and the appearance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the national stage, Powell kept the African American struggle for equal rights alive. (3) In the 1960's Powell reached the pinnacle of his political influence as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Although his legislative power was eclipsed when he was stripped of his chairmanship and excluded from membership in the 90th Congress in 1967,--a matter which is dealt with elsewhere--he retained his influence among African Americans. It is significant that during his legal battles, civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young came to his defense. (4)
In the African American civil rights struggle, Powell was supremely self-confident, at times even arrogant. He acquired a national reputation as a fearless fighter who would not tolerate racial bigotry directed at him personally or at his people. He never hesitated to speak his mind, whether it was in denouncing New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as a fascist or in attacking Mississippi's Congressman Theodore Bilbo as a racist. Nevertheless, when Powell's own racial identity was at issue, he could be insecure and uncertain. Throughout his life, he was defensive about his fair skin and self-conscious about his race. As Chuck Stone, his press representative said, Powell "was always sensitive about a white skin that housed a black militancy." (5)
There were good reasons for his sensitivity. Despite Powell's widespread acceptance in the black community, there were blacks and whites who viewed him suspiciously. Once at a City Hall hearing, a black man accused Powell of fraudulently calling himself a Negro. (6) Journalist, Roi Ottley, Powell's childhood friend, said, that his fair complexion resulted in "Negroes who complain that he is a stranger in our midst." (7) Writer, Frank Hercules, who admired Powell, confessed that he considered Powell to be essentially a white man calling himself black. He was "black merely by courtesy," Hercules asserted. (8) But it was a white journalist, Richard Levine, who in analyzing Powell's ancestry, concluded that "his blackness [was] more a matter of choice than identity. (9) Such attitudes made skin color a central dilemma of Powell's life, but one that ultimately strengthened him and enabled him to better understand the meaning of race in America.
The origin of Powell's insecurity can be traced to a childhood that did not emphasize race. He was born in 1908, the same year his father left New Haven's Immanuel Baptist Church to pastor the Abyssinian Baptist Church, founded a century earlier. (10) Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. was a self-made man, born into a desperately poor family in Virginia in 1865. He worked his way through Weyland Seminary, a Baptist institution in Washington, D.C. and became a charismatic leader, dynamic orator and adroit administrator. Powell Sr. was responsible for moving Abyssinian into an imposing new edifice on 138th Street in Harlem in 1923 and developing it into the largest black congregation in the United States, with over 10,000 members.
Adam was raised as a rich, indulged child, adored by his father and the three women in his home: his mother Mattie, his nurse Josephine, and his sister Blanche, ten years his senior. "Old-timers remember young Adam as a pretty, curly-haired child, coddled and pampered by his parents and every Sister and Saint in the church," said writer, Claude Lewis. Residing in a palatial townhouse that his father had purchased when whites were fleeing Harlem, Adam was prohibited from engaging in rough and tumble street life. Although he attended a public school in the neighborhood, his parents ensured that his friends came from well-to-do circumstances. Years later, when Adam started working in Harlem, he had to confront the uncomfortable fact that he knew very little about how the other half lived. Up until then, he had resided in but had not truly understood Harlem. (11)
Adam's first encounter with race was traumatic. It occurred when he was about ten years old and was sent by his father on an errand to purchase a newspaper. He ran into a gang of Negro boys from the black side of Harlem who wanted to know his race. Being unsure, he looked at his skin and told them he was white, which immediately resulted in his being administered a good whipping. The next day he was sent on another errand and ran into a gang of white boys from the white side of Harlem who also demanded that he tell them what race he was. Remembering what occurred previously, he told them he was "colored" and received another beating. Adam later told his first wife, Isabel Washington, that he was "neither fish nor fowl." He said, "the Irish boys would beat him because he wouldn't admit being white, and the blacks would beat him because he wasn't black enough to be black." The experience was life-changing because it sowed the seeds of his discovery that being black transcended color.
Powell's father and mother were as fair skinned as Adam, but had always identified as black. Powell Sr. was an advocate of racial pride who stated that he never desired to be anything other than a Negro. He used to declare, Isabel Washington said, that "God made the most beautiful flower garden in the world when he made the colored race. He made 'em from alabaster white to ebony black and all colors in between." Yet, when Adam appealed to him for help in understanding his race, he was ignored. All his father would say was that he was "mixed," which only added to Adam's confusion. At home, Adam said, "there was never any consciousness of race." (12)
While Powell Sr. publically promoted racial acceptance and uplift, privately he gave a wide berth to any mention of race. He feared that it might adversely influence his son and cause him to experience feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. According to psychologists, however, this was a poor strategy. Psychologist Kurt Lewin asserted that avoiding racial problems rather than producing a self-confident child most often results in its opposite. If a child grows up in an unreal world believing that there is no prejudice, their security will be shattered when they encounter it. The group a child belongs to must be valued because it provides a foundation of stability. Kenneth B. Clark demonstrated that black children as young as three, who are not taught racial pride, will often reject their color and show a preference for white skin. Adam's upbringing, therefore, could have contributed to his early confusion about race. (13)
Powell Sr. may have avoided discussing racial issues because he was beset by his own ambivalence. Despite the difference in his appearance from most Harlemites, with his white skin, blue eyes and light brown hair, he occupied prestigious positions as a leading black representative of his community. He sat on the boards of the NAACP and the Urban League, and was appointed to commissions on Harlem by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Members of Abyssinian looked on his fair skin favorably and at times would compare him in appearance to Jesus Christ. Kenneth B. Clark, who grew up in Harlem, recalls: "When as a child I first saw him I thought he was God." (14) Yet, despite this social acceptance from the black community, there were limits to Powell Sr.'s racial pride. In fact, he was known not to reveal his racial origins when it was convenient. Although he claimed never "at any time,[wanting] to be a white man," and of never trying "to pass for anything but what I am," he willingly rode in white-only Pullman cars when traveling in the South. (15)
Bright and quick-witted, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was an excellent student until adolescence when he discovered girls and began spending inordinate time socializing. As a result, he was forced to spend an additional semester in high school in order to graduate. Even so, he graduated at the age of 16, and with considerable parental pressure, enrolled at the City College of New York. By the end of the first semester, however, carousing caused him to fail three subjects. Only his father's personal acquaintance with the college president kept him from being expelled. In the following semester he failed five of six subjects and was expelled. Adam's academic failure resulted from his rebellion against his father's puritanical strictures against card playing, movies, and drinking, and his own inherent propensity for enjoying life's sensual pleasures. In this, he was following the example of his married sister, Blanche, 10 years his senior. She encouraged his rebelliousness by teaching him the latest dances and accompanying him to parties and on double dates. Her sudden death during his second semester culminated in his complete withdrawal from college work. (16)
Adam's expulsion from CCNY precipitated a family crisis. Considering him out of control, his mother tried to reform her wayward son by forcing him to get down on his knees and pray with her for deliverance from his wantonness. Fortunately, an old family friend, diagnosed Adam as suffering from normal adolescent rebelliousness, and he recommended that Adam be sent away from home to Colgate University, an all male institution with a reputation for academic rigor and manly discipline. The choice of Colgate was fortuitous since the president of the college, Dr. George Barton Cutton, was an old acquaintance of Powell Sr. from his New Haven days. This personal connection got Adam admitted despite his dismal academic record. When Adam arrived at Colgate in September 1926, at the age of 17, he could not have known that over the next four years his racial identity would be permanently transformed, paving the way for his success as a minister and political leader. (17) The Colgate student body consisted of almost 1,000 men, all of whom were white, with the exception of Adam and four other black students, who were recruited as athletes: senior, Merton Anderson; sophomore, Ray Vaughn; and freshmen, Daniel Cosby and John Enoch.
The lopsided racial ratio was typical of white institutions of the era. What was exceptional was that the college violated its own tradition of segregating the races in the dormitories by placing Adam with a white roommate, Howard Patterson, who was also from New York City. Blacks were always assigned other black roommates or they roomed alone. President Cutten, by treating Adam as a white student, even though he knew his father identified as black, gave Adam the option to assume a white identity. Adam proceeded to take advantage of the situation and made the crucial decision to pass for white. "The boys didn't know I was a Negro and I didn't bother to tell them," he later confessed. (18)
Things did not work out as Adam had expected, although it was months before black star football player, Ray Vaughn discovered that there might be another black student on campus. Adam, who loved sports, had avoided speaking to the black athletes, including Vaughn, even though he and Vaughn were in the same German language class. One black student who was acquainted with Powell during this period was Conrad Lynn, from nearby Syracuse University. Lynn, who came from Long Island, occasionally accompanied Adam on the New York Central train ride upstate on weekends. He reported that Powell spoke openly about his passing for white and used to laugh and joke about how it facilitated his clandestine interracial dating. (19) In fact, as soon as Adam arrived at Colgate, he began dating the daughter of a local white Baptist minister.
Adam had no intention of reforming his party boy life style and spent as little time as possible on his studies. He got along famously with his white roommate, with whom he drove to nearby towns in search of liquor and girls. Things were going so well that he applied for membership in an all-white fraternity on campus, which turned out to be his undoing. As his future friend, Ray Vaughn explained, "They checked into his family background, the way they do when you are a pledge and found out that he was passing." When the news traveled around the small campus community, "Nobody ... white or Negro would speak to him." What most disturbed Adam was that Patterson, his best friend, went to the Dean saying he couldn't live with a Negro and asked to be moved to another room. It was a request Adam felt that the college was all too willing to grant. Deeply wounded, and finding himself rooming alone, he said that " it was the first time in [his] life that deep discrimination had touched [him] directly." (20)
However, it was the black, not the white students, who were most unsettled by Adam's actions. Among the white students, Patterson was the exception. Notwithstanding Adam's rejection from the fraternity, many white students took his passing in stride, and he maintained numerous white friendships over the course of his four years at the college. Howard Armstrong became his closest white friend during that first year, and remained so thereafter. They drove together all over central New York, from Utica to Ithaca, in Armstrong's car, and Powell invited Armstrong to his home, where he introduced him to Abyssinian, the Cotton Club and Harlem night life.
The four black students were another matter. They were furious with Adam. His behavior had touched their core beliefs concerning racial integrity and left them feeling insulted and rejected. Adam was now faced with a choice. Was he going to try to ingratiate himself with the majority whites on campus, or was he going to acknowledge his black identity and draw closer to the small circle of black students? Powell tried to pass because he arrived at Colgate with unresolved identity conflicts. He felt that he occupied a marginal status on the boundary between white and black. "It's some kind of joke," Adam said about his white skin, "white folks think I'm black and black folks think I'm white." Uncertain of the racial ground he stood on made him vulnerable to self-rejection and to crossing over the slender line separating the races. (21)
A few days later, Adam made his choice. He approached Ray Vaughn in his dorm room and apologized, saying, "I think I made a mistake." Replying, "Boy, you sure did," Vaughn graciously offered him forgiveness and friendship, as did black freshmen, John Enoch and Daniel Crosby. Merton Anderson, however, was not appeased. To the lone black senior, whose complexion was as fair as Adam, passing was unthinkable. When Adam entered the room to apologize, Anderson walked out and thereafter refused to have anything to do with him. (22)
Ironically, Adam's identity crisis had not been entirely negative since it propelled him on a journey of discovery into what it meant to be black. Circumstances had forced him to make a declaration of his choice of race. He now took the initial steps to become more self-aware of his black identity, a process that William E. Cross Jr. called the "encounter stage" of black identity formation. At the beginning of his second semester, Adam began keeping a diary in order to force himself to be more reflective and self-conscious. He seemed to think his mistake had been in permitting his feelings to have too much sway, and that he needed to acquire more humility and self-control. Influenced by this insight, he copied, on a front page of his diary, lines from a poem by Countee Cullen, which went: "All day long and/All night through/One thing only must I do/Quench my pride and cool my blood/Lest I perish in the flood." (23)
By January, 1927 when he began his diary, Vaughn, Crosby and Enoch had become his closest friends and he spent most of his social time outside of class with them. His white friends, with the exception of Howard Armstrong, whom he called Brownie, receded in importance. In September, he began rooming with Vaughn and, during the following year, Enoch and Crosby moved in too. That first year, he invited all three to spend several days at his home in Harlem. Adam stopped dating interracially, and he asked Brownie to speak to the girls he had been seeing to let them know that he was black. From that time on, he selected all of his girlfriends from his own Harlem community. His favorite during his freshman year was 17 year old Lil Handy, but he enjoyed receiving letters and kept up a steady stream of correspondence with other female friends from Harlem. (24)
Ray Vaughn, who smoothed over Adam's passing with the other black students, came to his assistance in another way. Recognizing Adam's considerable social needs, Vaughn helped him get accepted into Alpha Phi Alpha, the renowned black fraternity. Since there were not enough black students to form a chapter at Colgate, Adam was initiated into the New York City chapter, but he was also able to participate in the chapter at Syracuse University. Vaughn and Adam purchased a car for $35 during his sophomore year, which enabled them to spend a lot of time socializing at the Syracuse fraternity house, about a hour's drive away. Conrad Lynn, their fraternity brother at Syracuse, objected to their excessive partying, and characterized them as part of a "hard drinking, whore-mongering crowd." (25) Nonetheless, Adam managed to get decent grades in all of his six courses his first semester, thereby avoiding academic suspension and his father's wrath.
By the end of his freshman year, Adam had immersed himself in black life to the extent that it was possible in a white, upstate, rural environment. On May 20th, 1927, when his father came to Colgate to lecture in the chapel on race relations, Adam was relieved that the issue of his racial identity was resolved. "Well, everyone knows I'm colored," Adam penned in his diary. He had made clear to his classmates that he identified as black and no longer had an interest in passing. (26)
Adam's diary over the next three college years charted his growth in maturity, self-confidence and identity. During his first year and part of his second, Adam was enrolled in a rigorous pre-medical curriculum but showed little interest in his studies, doing only did the bare minimum to get by. Then, at the intervention of his father, Adam took another decisive step. One weekend when Vaughn was visiting the Powell home, Powell Sr. asked Vaughn to persuade Adam to switch his major from pre-med to religion and consider becoming a preacher.
That night as they drove back to Colgate, Vaughn spoke to Adam about the advantages of going into the church, explaining that "it was all set up for him" to inherit his father's position. Adam, who had always known that his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps, required little convincing, for he soon changed his major and started preparing for the ministry. His grades improved, going from C's to B's in his junior year and to A's in his senior year. (27) Years later, looking back with satisfaction at fulfilling his father's wishes, he stated: "I take particular pride in the fact that ... I have carried out my father's hope for his church. As he wrote in one of his books: 'I built this church, but my son will interpret it', this I have done. ... " (28)
Adam's newly formed association with the black church, especially an historic one like Abyssinian, drew him that much closer to the cultural heritage of African Americans, thereby strengthening his black identity. While still in college, he began preaching at Abyssinian and before he graduated, his growing reputation as an orator led to his being invited to preach at other large Harlem churches, including St. Paul, Mt. Olivet and Salem. (29) As he contemplated his future as a black minister in Harlem, he wrote in his diary during his junior year, "I wonder how it will all turn out? Whatever the final outcome," he stated, "all I want to do is to keep the faith, and serve my people. ..." (30)
When Powell left Colgate with a bachelor's degree in June 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, the development of his black identity shifted from college to the church and the streets. He was more confident of his identity now than when he had entered Colgate four years previously, nevertheless, it was not certain what kind of black man he would be, or how he would cope with the problem of his fair complexion. After a summer tour of Europe that his father gave him as a graduation present, the twenty-two year old began working as director of Abyssinian's charities. It was a challenging job for someone whose privileged upbringing had kept him from gaining any real knowledge of the hard- scrabble life of ordinary black folks. He admitted that, at the time, he "had no feeling or sensitivity for the suffering around [him.]" (31)
Setting up operations in the church basement, he immediately began to concern himself with the neediest members of the Harlem community, thousands of whom had lost their employment, were being evicted from their homes, and lacked food and clothing. Inspired by the widely publicized statement of his father that "when you give men and women coats, shoes and dresses, you are giving clothing to God," Adam organized a free food and clothing distribution program. In a few weeks, with the help of a staff of 50, he was feeding 150 to 300 people a day. In a few months, his staff provided 28,000 meals and distributed 17,000 pieces of clothing and 2,000 pairs of shoes. Over the following years, Adam expanded Abyssinia's operations to include an employment agency, a Works Progress Administration adult education program of 33 courses, a free child care nursery for 120 pre-schoolers, plus free arts, crafts and drama classes that enrolled hundreds. (32)
Adam's charity work broadened his understanding of the black community and caused him to empathize more deeply with the people on the bottom of the social ladder. It was the maids, janitors, and laborers who struggled to put food on the table and pay Harlem's exorbitant rents who earned his sympathy. In due course, he publically identified himself with the ordinary, working-class "field Negroes," in contrast to the upper-echelon, fair-skinned class into which he was raised, whom he denigrated as "house Negroes." It is "the masses of folk" in whom he had "implicit faith," he said. It was the "people in high places" whom he "distrusted." (33) His proletarian sympathies, however, formed a marked contrast with his love of luxury and high living. He might have identified with the masses, but he lived in an affluent Westchester County suburb, lunched at the exclusive 21 Club and vacationed at his summer home on Martha's Vineyard. It was a contradiction he never resolved. (34)
What differentiated Adam from most black political leaders was his greater militancy and outspokenness. It was a militancy that was motivated by the uniqueness of his fair complexion. Compensating for his unusual appearance and his anxiety about his identity, Adam became more politically aggressive than blacks of the darkest complexions. He idolized the ebony colored black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, not the NAACP's ivory colored Walter White. Adam may have been afraid that if he was less militant than other black leaders, people would attribute it to the color of his skin, thinking that he was associating himself with the elitism of the lighter-skinned black upper-classes. Consequently, the harder and more militantly he fought, the less likely it would be that his black identity would be challenged.
Only a few years out of college, Adam had already earned a reputation for being more militant and independent than most of Harlem's political leaders. As a result, in 1933, a group of five black physicians bypassed more experienced leaders and asked for his help at Harlem Hospital. Conditions at the city operated hospital were so deplorable that neighborhood residents called it the "butcher shop" and the "morgue." The physicians were particularly upset by hospital policies that segregated black nurses, gave inferior assignments to black doctors and condoned substandard medical care. (35) Taking up the cause, the 24 year old preacher brought thousands of Harlemites to a protest rally on the steps of City Hall. As the crowd shouted slogans outside, Powell barged into the Board of Estimate meeting, and with the voices of the protestors wafting through the windows, Powell called for the firing of the Health Commissioner. Powell referred to this his first major political protest as "very heady wine for a youngster." It inaugurated the militant style of political leadership and social activism that was to become his hallmark. (36)
From the very beginning of his political career, Powell decided that his role as a black leader was to be as courageous and confrontational as necessary in fighting on behalf of justice for his people. "I intended to fashion that church into a mighty weapon, keen edged and sharp-pointed," he asserted." (37) Placing himself in the radical tradition of Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass, he constantly called for raising the decibel level of political activism. Powell felt that his function was to be an irritant and he attempted to get blacks to increase their opposition to discrimination. Referring to his mode of protest as "sustained indignation," and to himself as a "marching black," he considered the protest tradition as an ancestral heritage, beginning with his rebellious grandparents. "Whenever a person keep prodding, keeps them squirming ... it serves a purpose. It may not in contemporary history look so good. But as times roll on future historians will say, they served a purpose." (38)
Indeed, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin thought that Adam's attraction to black people was that he was "not afraid to give white folks hell. He could say what blacks could not if they wanted to keep food on the table." The NAACP's Roger Wilkins added that Adam " ... wouldn't bow low to white folks." These were the same qualities which won the admiration of a subsequent generation of black leadership as represented by the Reverend Al Sharpton, who called Powell one of the greatest men he had ever known. He "defied the taboos, he defied the limitations of black men," Sharpton asserted. "The establishment didn't want blacks to emulate that independence, that self-assurance, that arrogance." (39)
Powell's militancy also extended to fighting prejudice among blacks themselves. He felt that black identity included having respect for dark skin color and that feelings of superiority, based on shades of color differences between blacks, was an insidious practice which undermined racial progress. Especially critical of light-skinned blacks who passed for white, he condemned them as constituting the "most ruthless form of division." In his first book, Powell castigated a light skinned, black upper class family, for their contemptuous treatment of his friends Roi Ottley and Frank Kinnard because of their dark complexion. "Differences in color must disappear, caste must vanish and the problem of each Negro [must] become the problem of all Negroes," Powell asserted. (40)
Before the advent of the black consciousness movement of the sixties, Powell promoted black pride and self-respect. "Light himself," the NAACP's Roy Wilkins stated, "he delights in aligning himself with the blacks." Powell exhorted blacks to seek "audacious power," which he said "begins with the stand-up-and-be-counted racial pride in being black and thinking black." He had used the term "black" a generation before it was widely accepted in order to encourage African Americans to look favorably on the darkest complexions. When he was in the pulpit at Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of his preferred sermons was on the subject, "Think Big, Think Black and Think like a Child of God." (41)
Whenever Adam entered a room at a social affair, he spoke to the darkest complexioned blacks before anyone else. In the 1960's, when Harlem ministers and political leaders shunned Malcolm X, the black nationalist firebrand and promoter of black pride, Powell endorsed him and provided him with a speaking platform at his church. Malcolm respected Powell more than any other black leader because of his outspokenness and independence from the white political establishment. It was this independence which enabled Powell to champion dark skin color to African Americans, at a time when to be called black was considered an insult. (42)
Notwithstanding Powell's advocacy of black pride, he was not completely free from skin color preferences. From childhood, the ideal of physical attractiveness was his fair-skinned sister, Blanche. "My real love, my passionate love, had always been my sister ... my Princess," he wrote in his autobiography. "She was about five foot ten and her blond hair never changed in color as mine did. She looked totally white, with blue eyes like Daddy's. ... " Powell's standard of beauty evolved during the 1930's. When he left college in 1930, the woman he was dating and later married was Isabel Washington, a Cotton Club showgirl and Broadway actress. Although she was not quite as fair as Blanche, she could have served as a reasonably close facsimile. Isabel had fair skin and aquiline features that matched his own. (43)
It was not until the 1940's that Powell started to become the resolute advocate of black consciousness and pride found in his book, Marching Blacks. Not coincidentally, it was around this time, in 1945, that he obtained a divorce from Washington and married, Hazel Scott, the jazz pianist and singer. Scott's dark complexion and more African-like features were in stark contrast to Washington's. Powell's lingering sensitivity on this issue may account for the fact that he omitted any mention of the skin color of either woman in his autobiography. Nevertheless, it is interesting that he described Isabel as being "excitingly beautiful ... with a beautiful mouth, lovely light-brown eyes, and an exquisite figure," whereas Hazel was referred to only as "brilliant" and "gifted." Perhaps some ambivalence about color remained. (44)
Throughout the poverty stricken 1930's, Powell worked assiduously ministering to the political, economic and spiritual needs of the Harlem community and his own congregants. When a "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" job discrimination protest movement began on 125th Street in Harlem in 1934, he was one of the few ministers who would walk the picket lines. The example of his leadership was widely noted in the black press and encouraged hundreds of additional people to turn out for picket duty. A year later, ten days after a major riot broke out in Harlem on 125th Street, Powell wrote a series of trenchant articles in the New York Post taking Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to task for failing to address racial discrimination in the city. Denouncing LaGuardia's fusion administration as a "fusion for Fascism," Powell concluded that the death and destruction was "not a riot; it was an open, unorganized protest against empty stomachs, overcrowded tenements ... chiseling landlords ... and a disinterested administration." (45)
In 1938, at the age of 29, Powell resumed the jobs campaign, which had been aborted due to an anti-picketing court decision. He became the chief organizer of the Greater New York Coordinating Committee. The GNYCC organized thousands of pickets and boycotters, which resulted in unprecedented job opportunities in white collar, skilled and semi-skilled positions for blacks, who were traditionally relegated to menial jobs as maids, janitors and laborers. Through boycotts and non-violent direct action, Powell's organization got blacks employed in the New York Telephone company, which had no blacks among its staff of 4,500 operators; the Consolidated Edison Gas and Electric Company, where black workers numbered fewer than one percent; and at two major bus companies, which had never hired blacks either as drivers or mechanics. The GNYCC also obtained hundreds of jobs on 125th Street, Harlem's main commercial thoroughfare, and at the 1939 World's Fair. From this time forward, African Americans employed in non-menial jobs in New York City would be indebted to Powell's combative grass-roots leadership. Acknowledging Powell's contribution, Wilkins said, "He took the march, which was to flourish 25 years later under Martin Luther King and made it work for Harlemites in his time." (46)
Powell subsequently transformed the GNYCC into the People's Committee, which successfully campaigned to get him elected in 1941 as the first African American on the New York City Council, and, in 1945, as the second African American to sit in the United States Congress. The high point of his political career came in 1960 when he became chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. Under his leadership, 60 major bills were passed to reduce poverty and extend economic and educational opportunity for the most disadvantaged Americans. They included fair employment practices, the minimum wage, aid to elementary and secondary schools, vocational rehabilitation, head start, the student loan program, the manpower development training act, and the war on poverty. "He showed to a superb degree," Wilkins said, "how the American electoral and legislative processes can be made to work for an abused citizenry." (47)
Ironically, although Powell obtained wide acclaim throughout the 1930's and 1940's for his accomplishments as a black minister and political activist, he still had doubts about the authenticity of his putative African ancestry. His problem derived from his having no verifiable blacks in his family tree. Consequently, to establish his racial credentials, he created a fictional narrative of his origins. Unlike his father, who admitted knowing virtually nothing about his black ancestors, Powell constructed a dramatic account of his ancestry that was sufficiently compelling to silence his critics. In Marching Blacks, he stated that when he was ten years old he stood on a chair and ran his fingers over the letter P, nine inches high, which had been seared into his Grandfather's back as punishment for running away from slavery. "I swore to my God," he said "that I would not rest until I had wiped that brand from my memory and from the conscience of white America." Powell repeated this apocryphal story in public speeches for decades. (48)
There are several discrepancies in Adam's account, starting with his having no proof of African ancestry in his genetic background. In reality this grandfather was not a biological relative, as Powell implied, but was his father's stepfather. His name was Anthony Bush when he was enslaved, but he changed his name to Powell when he was freed after the Civil War. Consequently, if Bush was branded, it could not have been with the letter P. Powell's father contradicted Adam's narrative when he wrote that he knew "less than nothing" about the paternal side of his family and never knew who his father was. All he knew was that his step-father, Anthony Bush Powell, was legally married to his fair-complexioned mother, Sally Dunnings, and raised him as his own son.
About his mother's family, Powell Sr. had little to say with the exception that his grandmother, Mildred Dunnings, Sally's mother, "was dominated by Indian blood." Contrary to family lore, perpetuated by Adam, Sally was not a former slave. Sally and Mildred, both of whom were physically indistinguishable from whites, were part of a tiny community of free, so-called mulatto landowners in Franklin County, Virginia. This is as far as anyone has been able to go in establishing the Powell's' paternal black ancestry. (49)
Information concerning the maternal side of Adam's family is equally sketchy. All that is known is that his blond, blue eyed mother, Mattie, was born to mulatto laborers, fair-skinned Samuel Buster and Eliza Wilson Buster, in Fayette County, Virginia. Mattie's name was changed to Shaffer when her mother changed her name following her divorce from her husband a few years after the marriage. The names and racial background of Mattie's grandparents are not known. Adam's claim that his mother was related to the prominent Schaeffer brewing company heirs is totally fictitious. (50)
In short, contrary to Powell family lore advanced by Adam, there were no authenticated slaves in his biological family background on either side. While some of his grandparents were considered mulattoes, the term lacks specificity. In the nineteenth century, any light skinned or even white skinned individuals thought to have African ancestry were called mulattoes. The Powells were not able to specify who in their gene pool was indisputably African. All that is known is that Adam's grandparents might have had black ancestry. This uncertainty did not seem to bother Powell, Sr., but for Adam it was a constant source of discontent. (51)
The problem of not being considered as unimpeachably black was common to African Americans light enough to pass. Fair skinned, blue eyed John Hope, the president of Morehouse College, was so disturbed at being perceived as white that "he admitted that he would 'not mind being darker.'" Cyrus Field Adams, a light skinned member of the upper class, despaired of convincing some blacks that he was not trying to pass as a white man. "My trouble is, all my life I have been trying to pass for colored," he said regretfully. By the last decade of Powell's life, he would have agreed with Adams, because he too had been passing for colored. Finally, he accepted the futility of trying to convince people of his racial ancestry on genetic evidence. Instead, he focused on having willingly embraced the life experience and values of blacks, notably their aspirations for equality and their frustrations at its denial. (52)
What made this new positive sense of identity possible was that Powell's life-long record of allegiance and service to the black community had become the crucial factors of his racial identity. After all, he had been a courageous and determined defender of the rights of black people in America, ever since his initial foray into Harlem politics in his early twenties. Moreover, he had ascended to a level of political power historically unprecedented for a black elected leader. Adam was understandably proud of his leadership of the house Education and Labor Committee, which Lyndon B. Johnson had called the most productive committee in Congress. (53)
Feeling that he no longer had to be defensive about his color, Adam stopped recounting the tale of his branded slave grandfather, which he knew was untrue anyway. Black people were going to have to accept him as he was, with his hazel eyes and ivory colored skin. What mattered was his record of commitment and dedication to black people. Although, years earlier, his passing in college had turned into a minor scandal, he had, nevertheless, benefited by finding out how easily it would have been to live as a white person. That made his decision to live as a black person all the more dramatic and significant.
Powell's life experience taught him that what counted was how he thought and how he acted, not how he appeared. Finally, he could shed his defensiveness about his fair skin. He would no longer get upset by the type of quip Archer Winston of the New York Post once made in referring to Powell's complexion as "whiter than yours." When a white congressman admired a picture of Powell's family and remarked that Powell's parents looked whiter than his own, the unfazed Powell replied, "They probably were." (54)
Powell had determined that what qualified him as a black man was the fact that he shared the same disadvantages of racism and bigotry as other black people. It was his experiences of being denied access to the Congressional cafeteria, gymnasium and barbershop; of being referred to as a "nigger" on the floor of the Congress; and of being denied his seat in Congress, which defined him as black. Psychologist Kurt Lewin stated that a sense of racial or ethnic identity develops when individuals experience feelings of interdependency of fate, the realization that they share the same circumstances as the group. When they do, wrote Lewin, "they will be ready and even eager to take over a fair share of the responsibility for the group." Abyssinian's Board of Social and Christian Concern was in agreement when they praised Powell and his father for their willingness to align themselves with black people. "They chose to be black ... chose to live as maligned men ... chose not to escape (and) chose to stand and fight," they asserted. This is the way Powell felt he had tried to live ever since his aborted attempt to pass for white. (55)
Powell now used every opportunity he could to affirm his changed perspective on race. In 1967, he told a reporter from United Press International: "I couldn't prove that I have any Negro blood. I am a Negro by choice." Race, Powell explained was "no longer a question of pigmentation but a philosophy of life, a modus vivendi." To a Swedish reporter, he said " ... you, as a white man can think as black as I do. And that I being my color can think black. A white person can think just as black as a black man." (56)
Weary of feeling guilty about having white skin, Powell strove to remove genetic criteria from the definition of racial identity. Race, he felt, was wrongfully reified by shades of pigmentation when in reality it only exists as an idea in people's minds. To his third wife, Yvette Diago, Powell admitted that [biologically] "he was not really a Negro," and that Anthony Powell, the branded slave was not related to him by blood. Descent from a slave ancestor had become irrelevant. "If I have all white blood," he told a reporter, and "I'm doing what I am for the Negro, I deserve all the more credit. One of the things that gives me strength is that people say 'Here's a guy who could be white, but he isn't--he's part of our community', they know I can pass for white, but that I'm as black in my thinking as the blackest of them." Powell's life was an example of Lewin's observation about the most effective leaders of oppressed groups. They are often individuals like Powell, who have voluntarily associated themselves with the fate of the oppressed (57)
Being able to cross the color line had given Powell deeper insights into the confusing world of racial distinctions. His experience passing for white in college taught him that he was physically and mentally equal to the white students, and that to have been treated differently simply on the basis of a racial label was nonsensical. He claimed that he had started to learn about the absurdity of race during his encounter as a child with black and white gangs, who rejected him because of the color of his skin. It taught him "that it's not the color of your skin but the way you think that makes you what you are." He gave credit to Marcus Garvey--whose parades, as a child, he used to follow through the streets of Harlem--for first hearing it stated that " black was not a color, that black was a way of thinking." (58)
Shortly after Powell's death on April 4, 1972, a group of black ministers sat around reflecting about what motivated Powell over the course of his life. They were fascinated by the overarching need of this prominent black man to define his identity. Pointing to this central paradox of Powell's life, the Reverend Gardner Taylor said, "Some of us used to joke sometimes that one of Adam's drives was his determination to be black." (59)
Indeed, Powell's aspirations to be black resulted in heightened identification with black people and harder work on their behalf. His fair skin enabled him to see more clearly the fraudulent nature of racism, which strengthened his anger and militancy. As a consequence, he sought to inspire black people to greater pride, self-confidence and forceful action against racial oppression. At an outdoor rally in Harlem in 1963, Powell told the crowd, "The white man has given the Negro just about all he intends to give him. There is no future for the black man that he does not fight for ... There is no future for the Negro until he is proud that he is black, and is black in his thinking." (60)
Powell's light complexion also gave him greater insight into the definition of race in America, especially after his experience at Colgate, where he had been both black and white. Over and over he stated that he had learned from life that race is not determined by color, but is instead a function of one's consciousness. Therefore, Powell asserted that anyone can be black, even a white man like himself.
Lawrence Rushing is Professor of Psychology in the Social Science Department at La Guardia Community College (CUNY)
(1) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Marching Blacks: An Interpretive History of the Rise of the Black Common Man (New York: Dial Press, 1945), 18; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (New York: A Citadel Press Book. 1971/1994), 70-84; Claude Lewis, Adam Clayton Powell (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1963), 6.
(2) Roi Ottley, New World A-Coming (New York: Arno Press, 1943/1968), 220.
(3) Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991), 484.
(4) New York Post, March 2, 1967; Roy Wilkins, "Youngsters vs. Powell's Record," Amsterdam News, 1969; Roy Wilkins, "Adam Powell: A Black Appraisal," New York Times, April 28, 1972.
(5) Chuck Stone, Black Political Power in America, rev. ed. (New York: A Delta Book, 1968) 194.
(6) Lenworth Gunther III, Flamin' Tongue: The Rise of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. 1908-1941 (Upublished dissertation, Columbia University, 1985), 461.
(7) Ottley, New World A-Coming, 231.
(8) Frank Hercules, American Society and the Black Revolution (New York: Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972), 311.
(9) Richard Levine, The End of the Politics of Pleasure," Harper's Magazine, April, 1971, 58.
(10) The Abyssinian Baptist Church was founded in 1808 and relocated to West 40th Street in Manhattan.
(11) Powell, Adam by Adam, 1-21; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 41-44; Gunther, Flamin' Tongue, 74-79, 91, 92; Claude Lewis, Adam Clayton Powell, 37.
(12) Kisseloff, Jeff, You Must Remember This (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), 296; Gunther," Flamin Tongue,'" 87-91; Powell, Adam by Adam, 14.
(13) Kenneth B. Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 64, 65; Kurt Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts and Field Theory in Social Science (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1948/1997), 122-132.
(14) Neil Hickey and Ed Edwin, Adam Clayton Powell and the Politics of Race (New York: Fleet Publishing Corp., 1965) 16
(15) Robert Jakoubek, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: Political Leader (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), 23; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 46, 47: Gunther, Flamin' Tongue, 88-91; Kurt Lewin, "When Facing Danger," in Resolving Social Conflicts & Field Theory In Social Science ( Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1948/1951/1997), 119; Abyssinian Baptist Church Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Archives, Box W.
(16) Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 47, 48; Gunther, Flamin' Tongue, 94-101; Powell, Adam by Adam, 26-28.
(17) Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 49; Gunther, "Flamin Tongue," 103,104; Wil Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 2-5.
(18) Irwin Ross, "Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: A Post Portrait," New York Post, March 27, 1956.
(19) Conrad Lynn, Guest Lecture, Vassar College Exploring Transfer Program, Summer, 1990 (in author's possession).
(20) Haygood, King of the Cats, 10; Powell, Adam by Adam, 32; Dave Balch, "Powell, Man of Many Parts, Plays 'Em All With Aplomb," World Telegram, April 3, 1963, 62; Ross, New York Post, March 27, 1956.
(21) Haygood, King of the Cats, 10-12, 15, 16; Time Magazine, "The Playboy Politician," April 17, 1972.
(22) Balch, New York World Telegram, April 3, 1963, 62; Haygood, King of the Cats, 15, 16; Gunther, " Flamin' Tongue," 103-110; Hickey and Edwin, Adam Clayton Powell, 33-35.
(23) William E. Cross Jr., "The Negro-To-Black Conversion Experience," Black World, July, 1971, 13-27; Abyssinian Baptist Church, Powell Archives, Adam Clayton Powell Diary.
(24) Haygood, King of the Cats, 12-19; Abyssinian Archives, Diary of Adam Clayton Powell.
(25) Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 50; Haygood, King of the Cats, 12;
Conrad Lynn, There is a Fountain: The Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill & Company, 1979), 46; Balch, World Telegram, April 3, 1963.
(26) Abyssinian Archives, Powell Diary, Mary 20, 21, 1927.
(27) Abyssinian Archives, Powell Diary; Balch, World Telegram, April 3, 1963; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 51, 52; Gunther, Flamin' Tongue, 113-115.
(28) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam by Adam, 37.
(29) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam by Adam, 35; Abyssinian Archives, Powell Diary, June 26, 1929, March 2, 1930, March 30, 1930.
(30) Abyssinian Archives, Powell Diary, April 25-27, 1929.
(31) Adam Clayton Powell, Adam by Adam, 55,56; James. S. Haskins, Adam Clayton Powell: Portrait of a Marching Black, (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1993), 28-29; Gunther, Flamin' Tongue, 123,124.
(32) Gunther, Flamin' Tongue, 130-166.
(33) Adam Clayton Powell, Marching Blacks, 5, 15, 18, 27-31.
(34) Lerone Bennett, "Adam Clayton Powell," Ebony, June, 1963, Vol. 18, No. 8, 25.
(35) Haygood, King of the Cats, 33,34; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, 86,87; Adam Clayton Powell, Adam by Adam, 57.
(36) Haygood, King of the Cats, 35-37; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 89; Adam Clayton Powell, Adam by Adam, 58, 59.
(37) Jarvis Anderson, This Was Harlem: 1900-1950 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982), 261, 293; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 80, 81.
(38) Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 482; Powell, Marching Blacks, 18
(39) Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 481, 482; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Marching Blacks, 18; Roger Wilkins, A Man's Life: An Autobiography (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1984), 324; Al Sharpton and Anthony Walton, Go and Tell Pharaoh: The Autobiography of The Reverend Al Sharpton (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 40-43.
(40) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Marching Blacks, 83-85.
(41) Stone, Black Political Power in America, 194; Roy Wilkins, "Joshua of West 138th St.," New York Herald Tribune, February 17, 1946; "Powell Exhorts Negroes: 'Seek Audacious Power,'" New York Post, May 28, 1975.
(42) Haygood, King of the Cats, 322, 323; David Gallen, Malcolm X: As They Knew Him (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers Inc., 1992), 174; Iman Benjamin Karim, ed. The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches hy Malcolm X (New York: Seaver Books, 1971), 14, 15; Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interview and a Letter by Malcolm X (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 93, 94, 100.
(43) Powell, Adam By Adam, 27, 28.
(44) Ibid., 223, 224; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, 80, 107.
(45) Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 91, 92, 223, 224; Gunther, Flamin ' Tongue, 253-260; "Harlem Negroes' View on Problems," New TorkPost, March 27,1935,
(46) Gunther, "Flamin' Tongue," 354-380; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam by Adam, 62-67; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 94-107; Roy Wilkins, "Youngsters vs. Powell's Record," Amsterdam News, Nov. 22, 1969.
(47) Adam Clayton Powell, Adam by Adam, 68, 69, 201-205; Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 116, 117, 156, 369-373, 386-393; Wil Haygood, King of the Cats, 274-283, 302-305, 308-312; Roy Wilkins, "A Black Appraisal," New York Times, April 28, 1972.
(48) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Marching Blacks, 15; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,
Adam By Adam, 2, 3.
(49) Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Against The Tide (New York: Richard R. Smith,
1938), 6; Gunther, "Flamin' Tongue," 15-18.
(50) Gunther, "Flamin' Tongue," 24,25; Adam Clayton Powell, Adam By Adam, 4, 5.
(51) Gunther, "Flamin' Tongue," 15.
(52) Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990/2000), 178, 179.
(53) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam by Adam, 204, 205.
(54) Richard Levine, "The End of the Politics of Pleasure," Harper's Magazine, April, 1971, 58.
(55) Kurt Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts, 120; Abyssinian Archives, Board of Social and Christian Concern, October 24, 1973.
(56) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam By Adam, 14; Amsterdam News, April 1, 1967; New York Times, April 25, 1967.
(57) Ladies Home Journal, May, 1967, 170; New York Times, April 25, 1967; Claude Lewis, Adam Clayton Powell, 34,35; Hickey and Edwin, Adam Clayton Powell and the Politics of Race, 2; Dan Wakefield, Esquire Magazine, November, 1959; Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts, 140.
(58) Amsterdam News, April 1, 1967; Adam Clayton Powell, Adam By Adam, 24
(59) Haygood, King of the Cats, 413.
(60) Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 486; Claude Lewis, Adam Clayton Powell, 33.
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|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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