Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.

from the “Untold Story” audio pod written by Franz Doppen

Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. who arrived in 1884.  After having worked as a young miner in Rendville, he went on to become a nationally significant religious and civil rights leader.
Powell was born to slaves on May 5, 1865, in Franklin County, Virginia, where his family lived in dire poverty as share croppers in a remote rural area after slavery ended.  Upon enrolling in school at the age of six in 1871 Powell learned the alphabet in one day.  The following April he could read the Gospel of St. John. As a reward, on his seventh birthday, Powell’s grandfather gave him a subscription to a newspaper. Powell recalled, “Then I became a world citizen and contracted a disease called wanderlust. Through this weekly paper we learned that men could earn a dollar a day, and women 12 dollars a month in West Virginia.” Thus his family moved to a home on the Kanawha River across from Colesburg, West Virginia, where at was his job to take care of the cows.  At the age of ten Powell saw his first train and clock. Two years later the family moved to Paint Creek, on other side of river where he enrolled in school. Describing his eight years in West Virginia as a mental and moral disaster, he reported that, “the chief aim of average man was to possess a pistol, a pair of brass knuckles, and a jug of hard liquor. Fights were numerous and life was cheap.  I soon became a part of all I met”.  Having learned all his teacher knew in less than two years, Powell quit school.

Portraying himself as a cheap edition of a “desperado” and “to keep from being lynched or murdered,” he moved to Rendville in August, 1884, at age 18.  “This was the most lawless and ungodly place I had ever seen,” he wrote. “Every house on Main Street, except the mayor’s office and post office, was used as a gambling place. To the vices brought from W. Va., I added gambling, the most vice-like of all the vices.” He secured a job in Rend’s mines and made 80 to 100 dollars a month; however, “Every dollar of this and all I borrowed was sacrificed to the demon of gambling which possessed me, soul and body.”

But his life of vice met its match in Rendville. On March 1, 1885, having lost all wages and $40 of borrowed money, something happened,” as Powell was drawn by a powerful religious revival that swept the town:

Then with an abruptness which no one could explain, the barrooms and gambling dens were deserted. Saloon keepers who attended the services emptied their liquor barrels on Main Street and gamblers made a bonfire out of their gambling equipment. It was as if, people determined with one voice and at one time, wanted to quit the vice and disorder in that place. They had deliberately chosen to work in Rendville and many had purchased their own homes. They desired, therefore, to pursue a decent life there.”

Powell’s religious reawakening took place in the Rendville Baptist Church, a building which survives on Main Street today as the Rendville Art Works. In April, 1885, a crowd, estimated at 1,000, witnessed the Rev. Hammond baptize some fifty converts in Sunday Creek, including Powell whose ways had changed so much that Mayor Tuppins appointed him town marshal. Unfortunately there is neither a documented record of Tuppins’ relationship with Powell, nor with labor organizer Richard L. Davis, shopkeeper John L. Jones or hotel owner S. B. Allen.  What is clear is that during this initial decade in the life of Rendville, unique African American leaders emerged.

Nationally, Powell emerged as one the most notable of leaders. His youthful stay in the town would came to an end as his natural intellect and growing participation in the Rendville Baptist Church inspired him to enroll at Virginia Union University.  There he studied law and politics, graduating from the theological and academic departments.  Upon graduation, he pastored at several Baptist churches in St. Paul, Philadelphia and New Haven.  While in Connecticut, Powell decided to become a student at the Yale Divinity School before being called to Harlem, New York City, to pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1908.  That same year his son Adam Jr. was born.  As a child, Junior often spent his summers with relatives in Rendville where a young Sophia Mitchell, who would later become Ohio’s First African American mayor, babysat him.

While at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Powell’s 6’ 2” stature added to his charisma, causing his congregation to expand. By 1923 he built a new church along with the first community recreation center in Harlem. At the same time Powell became a prominent religious leader of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of cultural, social and political change that gave the nation its first professional black community.  By the mid-1930’s the Abyssinian boasted 14,000 members, making it the largest protestant congregation in America.

During the Great Depression, Powell campaigned to feed the poor, lectured on race relations and civil rights, and made his name in American history as founder of the National Urban League, and as an early leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NACCP] – two institutions that led to the early Civil Rights movement in our country.

In 1938, Powell published his autobiography, Against The Tide, named in deference to his love for catching large fish and the swift eight feet high inlet tide of Lake Worth, Florida, that he was required to pass before reaching the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.  He interpreted his childhood and early adulthood years in Rendville as part of the tide he faced in his most prominent battle: working to overcome prejudice against African Americans – a never ending tide he faced throughout his life. Quoting from a lecture he heard while at the Yale Divinity School, Powell viewed the challenges in his life as an opportunity to learn to be successful,

Young students for the ministry, if you do not find a man, or group of men, in your first church who antagonize your every move, or oppose your every suggestion, get on your knees and pray for the Lord to send such opposition.  This will do more than all your friends and flatterers to make you successful.  … I have never had to pray for opposition……I never cared for smooth roads and placid lakes, because they make small men and poor sailors.  I have always removed cushions from my study chair placed their by benevolent church ladies, and only recently have been able to sleep on a soft mattress.  I hate mediocrity.”

Powell died in 1953, passing his leadership role in Harlem on to his son Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who was to become national figure as a controversial Congressman, representing Harlem from 1945-1971. To this day, Powell’s descendants continue to be involved in New York politics.

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