Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., lived from November 29, 1908 to April 4, 1972, he was a charismatic politician and pastor who represented Harlem, NY, in the United States House of Representatives (1945–71). He was the first person from New York of African American descent to be elected to Congress, and he became a powerful national politician.
Powell was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the second child and only son of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Mattie Buster Shaffer, both born poor in Virginia and West Virginia, respectively. His sister Blanche was 10 years older. His parents were of mixed race with African and European ancestry (and, according to his father, American Indian on his mother’s side). They and ancestors were classified as mulatto in 19th-century censuses; Powell’s paternal grandmother’s side had been free for generations before the Civil War. By 1908, Powell Sr. had served as a pastor in Philadelphia and was the lead pastor at a Baptist church in New Haven.
As a Baptist minister. He worked his way out of poverty and through Wayland Seminary, a historically black college, and postgraduate study at Yale University and Virginia Seminary. In 1908, he was called as the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem; he led the church for decades, and directed an addition to accommodate the increased membership of the congregation during the years of the Great Migration. It grew to a community of 10,000.
He also earned an M.A. in religious education from Columbia University in 1931. He became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity started by and for blacks.
After ordination, Powell began assisting his father with charitable services at the church, and as a preacher. He greatly enlarged the volume of meals and clothing provided to the needy, and began to learn more about the lives of the working class and poor in Harlem.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Powell, a handsome and charismatic figure, became a prominent civil rights leader in Harlem, New York. He developed a formidable public following in the Harlem community through his crusades for jobs and affordable housing. As chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Employment, he used numerous methods of community organizing to bring political pressure on major businesses to open their doors to black employees at professional levels. He organized mass meetings, rent strikes, and public campaigns to force companies, utilities and Harlem Hospital, which operated in the community, to hire black workers at a skill level higher than the lowest positions to which they had been restricted..
Powell’s increasing absenteeism was noted by his constituents. In June 1970, he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Charles B. Rangel. That fall, after failing to get enough signatures to get on the November ballot as an Independent, he resigned as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and moved to his retreat on Bimini.
After their divorce, in 1945 Powell married the singer Hazel Scott. They had a son, Adam Clayton Powell III. He became Vice Provost for Globalization at the University of Southern California.
In April 1972, Powell became gravely ill and was flown to a Miami hospital from his home in Bimini. He died there on April 4, 1972, at the age of 63, from acute prostatitis, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. After his funeral at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York City, his son Adam III poured his ashes from a plane over the waters of his beloved Bimini.