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King and Prince of Abyssinian: Reflections on Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Jr.

“For we know that we are the children of God. He’ll fight my battles and I’ll be free someday. Stand together children, fight together children, worship together children. Don’t you get weary.”
—Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

April 4th is a renowned date in Black America. Most blacks recognize it as the day civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. But this date is also significant because it marks the death of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. The 45th anniversary of Powell’s death occurred earlier this year. The majority of blacks under the age of 30, who are not from New York or African-American studies majors, are unfamiliar with Powell. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. is one of the most complicated figures in history. He was a dashing 6’4 Baptist pastor of a 14,000-member church, who preferred nightclubs and chasing short skirts to Bible study and saving souls. He was an antecedent to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He demonstrated the power of the black church as an instrument for protest, community organizing, and political empowerment. Powell, Jr., understood that there was no such thing as a separation of church and state within the African-American community.

In 1944 he became the first black man from a Northeastern state to be elected to the United States Congress. By 1965 he was the most powerful black politician in American history. However, his political career was plagued by accusations of chicanery and abuse of power. Powell, Jr., referred to himself as the first “baaad nigger” in Congress. “He bathed in blackness,” said the late historian John Henrik Clarke. Like Martin King, Powell, Jr., was also the son and namesake of an influential Baptist minister. His father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., led Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, to become the largest black Protestant church in America. Although he was not directly involved in politics like his son, Powell, Sr., played a role in the civil rights struggles of the first half of the 20th century. In this article I will provide a brief reflection on the legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the king and prince of Abyssinian.

In My Father’s House
Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was born in Franklin County, Virginia, on May 5, 1865. His mother Sally Dunning was listed in the 1870 census as a free woman of African and Indian descent. The Encyclopedia of African American History (2006) reported that his father was a white man of German descent named Llewellyn Powell. His father was killed during the Civil War shortly before his birth. Consequently, Powell, Sr., had very fair skin and straight hair. Charles V. Hamilton, Columbia University professor and author of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1991), says the family relocated to West Virginia in 1880. According to Hamilton, Powell, Sr.,’s mother married a former slave named Anthony Bush who changed the family’s last name to Powell. As a child Powell, Sr. did odd jobs such as hauling water at dams with his stepfather. Powell, Sr., was forced to leave West Virginia to avoid being lynched due to his involvement in the shooting of an influential white resident. He migrated to Rendville, Ohio, where he found work in the coal mines and wasted much of his free time and money gambling. In 1885 a religious revival came to town that would transform his life. He became a “born again” Christian and found his calling to join the ministry. He relocated to Washington, DC, in 1887 to attend divinity school at Howard University. However, because he lacked tuition money the closest he came to Howard was working at a restaurant and hotel in the city called Howard House. Powell, Sr., eventually enrolled at Wayland Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, graduating with honors. He was such a superb student and speaker that he was selected to be the commencement speaker at his own graduation.

Adam Powell, Sr.’s preaching career began at churches in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1893 he relocated to New Haven, Connecticut, to serve as the head pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church located near Yale University. Powell, Sr. assumed leadership of a church that was “spiritually dead” at the time. He altered the time of worship and began recruiting students from Yale to boost attendance. He and his wife Mattie would have the students over to their home after service for Sunday dinners. He took advantage of the church’s proximity to Yale to enroll himself as a student. Although he only attended the university for a year, having an Ivy League institution on his resume was something that few black pastors could boast of during this time period. In 1908, when he was 43-years-old, he assumed leadership of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City as it celebrated its centennial anniversary. He was the 17th pastor in the church’s history. Abyssinian was founded in 1808 after 16 black members (12 women and four men) of First Baptist Church in New York City left the church because of its Jim Crow policy that restricted their seating to segregated pews. The rebellious members formed their own church in lower Manhattan. The church was named after the ancient name of Ethiopia, Abyssinia. Abyssinian was the first African-American church in the state. Just before Powell, Sr., took over efforts had been made to relocate the church to Harlem. The potential move did not resonate well with the church members, but the church’s new pastor Powell, Sr., was mindful of the number of blacks moving to the city as a part of the Great Migration. Harlem was the ideal location if he wanted his church to reach its full potential. [Keep in mind that this was a few years before the rise of Marcus Garvey’s movement and the Harlem Renaissance.]

In 1915 Powell, Sr., began holding citywide revival meetings and preaching throughout the city. Abyssinian’s congregation added another 400 members. Despite the objection from his members he launched a series of tent meetings in the summer of 1920 to raise enough money to start building a new church in Harlem on West 138th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. he former location on West 40th Street was sold for $200,000. Construction of the Gothic and Tudor style edifice and a community house was completed in only 14 months for $334,888.86.

The new building was dedicated on June 17, 1923. Powell, Sr., encouraged members, on a weekly basis, to donate extra money to their building fund. Although John D. Rockefeller, Jr., offered to give Powell, Sr., $60,000, he declined the offer. His goal was to pay for the church without outside help from white philanthropists who might want a stake in ownership. Ultimately, 2,000 members pledged to give one-tenth of their weekly income to the fund. Powell Sr., traveled throughout the country to raise money by preaching and selling Bibles, and as his reputation spread religious journals invited him to write articles. By January 1928, and in less than five years, the church paid off a 12-year, $60,000 mortgage. Powell, Sr.’s next move was to have the church purchase a $40,000 home for senior citizens. In 1930 the renowned German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer began teaching Sunday school at Abyssinian. Bonhoeffer would eventually become one of the loudest critics of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. (He was executed by the Nazis on April 19, 1945.)

In addition to his work at the church Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who befriended both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. He advocated the social change of the Progressive Movement (1890-1920). Decades later he would write an autobiography entitled Against the Tide (1938). Powell, Sr., hired his son Adam to be assistant pastor and director of Abyssinian’s kitchen and relief operation, responsible for aiding black Harlemites suffering from the Great Depression.

The Son of a Preacher Man
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was born on November 29, 1908, in New Haven, Connecticut. He was his parents’ second child and only son. Power, Sr., and his wife Mattie spoiled and pampered their son. As a child Powell, Jr., had blond hair and hazel eyes. When he went off to attend Colgate University he passed as white and even pledged a white fraternity. His college roommate Daniel Crosby says that Powell, Jr.’s first date at school was with the daughter of a white Baptist preacher. He would brag to his black friends back in Harlem that he was going off to school to “act white”. Allyson Hobbs discusses the practice of “passing” in the African-American community in her book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America (2016). Powell’s cover was blown when his father came to visit him at school. Despite his actions at school Powell, Jr., never forgot that he was “a negro”. He was enthralled by the music, culture, fashion, chorus girls, and bootleg liquor of black Harlem. After completing Colgate in 1930, he spent a year at Union Theological Seminary before completing a master’s degree in Religious Education at Columbia University. Powell, Jr., initially planned to go into medicine, but he already had a job waiting for him back at his father’s church. He began serving as his father’s assistant during the Great Depression. Sixty-three percent of Harlem’s black children were suffering from malnutrition. Powell, Jr.’s first acts as the assistant pastor included opening a job bank, a soup kitchen, a nursery, a youth program, and a mental health clinic. He had clothing distributed to the needy and even gave away his own clothes.

Powell, Jr. was a different man from his father. He married Isabel Washington, a black showgirl at the Cotton Club. His father and several members of the church objected to him marrying a worldly woman. Powell, Jr., also took a much more active stance in civil rights than his father. In the midst of a two day riot which broke out in Harlem over a false rumor that a black boy was fatally shot for shoplifting, Powell found his voice in local politics. He published a series of articles in the New York Post voicing the frustrations of Harlem blacks. The articles led to a boycott of all the stores on 125th Street that refused to hire black employees. Powell, Jr., admonished black women not to buy where they could not work. A few businesses caved into their demands, but they only hired fair skinned blacks. Powell, Jr., demanded that they hire dark skinned blacks. In 1941 he led the North’s first bus boycott. Powell said “every negro that rides a bus is lynching the race.” He secured jobs for the city’s black bus drivers. Powell, Jr., continued to build his reputation as a leader in Harlem by starting his own newspaper, The People’s Voice. The paper was selling 40,000-50,000 copies a week at its peak, however its success did not sit well with everyone in the African-American community. Rival black-owned papers like The Chicago Defender, New York’s Amsterdam News, and the Baltimore Afro-American objected to it. “Oppose New N.Y. Tabloid Backed by White Group,” wrote the Defender.

In 1941 Powell Jr., parlayed his celebrity status into winning a seat on the newly constituted New York City Council. He was the first black elected to the council. By this time Abyssinian had 14,000 members. Although he was a Democrat he shocked Eleanor Roosevelt when he stood up to speak at an event she was attending and announced that the “Negro people” would not blindly support American efforts in World War II. After it was announced that a new United States congressional district (the 22nd District) was being formed in Harlem, Powell, Jr., upstaged the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters labor union leader A. Philip Randolph at a Madison Square Garden rally, when he announced his candidacy. Powell was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1944, going on to serve 14 terms in the House of Representatives between 1945 and 1971. Powell, Jr., was a maverick in Washington, DC. He was elected to serve as the congressional chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. He was instrumental in the passage of social and civil rights legislation during the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Powell, Jr., played a critical role in Johnson’s Great Society programs, notably the War on Poverty. He advocated for making lynching a federal crime, and promoted the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicaid, aid for primary and secondary schools, and raising minimum wage.

Powell Jr.’s new political power came with a new wife, singer Hazel Scott. The beautiful Scott was a Juilliard School trained jazz musician and singer. She was the first African-American to host her own television series, The Hazel Scott Show (1950). Their marriage ended in divorce after 15 years. Powell, Jr. would get married for a third time to Yvette Flores Diago. Their marriage would also end in divorce. His marriages produced three sons. Powell’s insatiable womanizing was a major cause for his divorces.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., used the church as a platform for his political career. Whenever an election came near he did not have to campaign. He would simply tell his flock to go out and acquire the votes for him to win. During his first run for office the church pledged $10,000 and formed a nonpartisan committee to work around the clock. Powell, Jr., possessed his father’s gift for fundraising. James Farmer, the former leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), invited him to speak at one of their fundraising rallies. Powell, Jr., exaggerated all of CORE’s accomplishments by adding a zero to the end of everything. For example if the civil rights organization was responsible for integrating seven southern restaurants he would say it was 70 restaurants. When it came to donate he pledged $100 and strongly urged everyone in the audience to follow his lead. By the end of the event CORE had achieved its financial goal. Years later Farmer revealed that Powell, Jr.’s, check bounced when he tried to cash it at the bank.

Powell, Jr., was one of the earliest black politicians to endorse Black Nationalism. He befriended Black Power Movement icons Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. But he was not a fan of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1960 renowned civil rights leader Bayard Rustin planned a massive demonstration on the Democratic Party’s national convention. Then senators Lyndon Johnson (TX) and Sam Rayburn (TX) persuaded Powell, Jr., to stop the demonstration. Powell threatened to leak a fabrication to the press accusing King and Rustin, who was a gay black man, of being clandestine lovers. King was forced to dissociate himself from Rustin for the next three years. As for Rustin he sank further into anonymity for the next few years. King and others would soon replace Powell as the face of the Civil Rights Movement and black America over the course of the 1960s. Powell’s personal failings and ego were largely responsible for his fall. In 1960 Esther James, a 66-year-old domestic worker, sued him for libel. Powell, Jr., had accused her of being a “bag woman” or someone who delivered payoffs from gambling, prostitution, and illegal drug racketeers to the local police department. Ms. James won a judgement for $200,000 in the court. Powell, Jr., refused to pay the fine or appear in court. He was cited with contempt and banned from stepping foot in New York except on Sundays when state law prohibited the serving of civil contempt warrants. (Just two years earlier he had been indicted for failure to pay his taxes.) Powell would fly into New York from Washington, DC, on Sundays to preach at Abyssinian and then return to DC.

Besides his legal problems many members of congress grew tired of Powell, Jr., missing work and congressional votes because he was off vacationing with his friends and mistresses. On January 9, 1967, the House Democratic Caucus stripped him of his chairmanship on the Education and Labor Committee. The House of Representatives voted to let him serve in Congress until the Judiciary Committee completed a full investigation of his perceived misdeeds. Harlem’s beloved preacher was censured, fined, and lost his seniority. The House voted to exclude him from the 90th Congress (1967-1969). His political troubles did not dampen his support amongst blacks, not just in Harlem but around the nation. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke out in his defense. When a special election was held to fill Powell, Jr.’s congressional seat Harlem’s residents gave their hero 86 percent of the vote. “My people would elect me… even if I had to be propped up in my casket,” declared Powell. Congress ignored the results and still refused to reseat him. Rather than focusing on church business, Powell, Jr., spent his days of expulsion drinking liquor and smoking on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. On June 16, 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. McCormack, that it was unconstitutional to bar Powell. Powell, Jr., was diagnosed with cancer the same year as the Supreme Court decision; therefore, he stepped down from his post at Abyssinian in 1971 and relocated to Bimini. His autobiography, Adam by Adam, was published in the same year. Powell, Jr., passed away on April 4, 1972 in Miami, Florida at the age of 63. His father passed away 19 years earlier at the age of 88.

King of the Cats
I required the students in my African-American History course to read Wil Haygood’s King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1993) this past spring semester. I believed that it was important for them to learn about both Powell, Sr. and Powell, Jr. These men demonstrated the power of black pastors and the church to affect civic change. The majority of the black leaders in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, especially in the South, emerged from the pulpit. In recent years we have had pastors such as Floyd Flake in Queens, New York, and the slain Clementa Pickney in Charleston, South Carolina, who have served in the U.S. Congress and South Carolina House of Representatives, respectively. In the case of Powell, Jr. his story shows the danger of hubris and placing too much power in one man. It was evident that Powell, Jr, never intended to be a traditional pastor. The pulpit was more of a stepstool to his political ambitions. Powell Jr., found himself out of step with the morally righteous pastors in the 1960s and later the 1970s who led thriving congregations and had power outside of the church. Nevertheless, Powell Jr., and his father were trailblazers in the African-American church, the Civil Rights Movement, and American democracy. All hail the king and prince of Abyssinian!

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.