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Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Keep the Faith, Baby!": Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Turns 100

Today (Saturday, November 29) marks the 100th birthday of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church (which is turning 200 years old this year) and Harlem’s congressional representative from 1945 until 1971. (Powell died in 1972.)

Powell’s father, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was pastor at Abyssinian Baptist from 1909 to 1936, during which time the church moved to Harlem and became the largest protestant parish in the world with over 12,000 members. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.—at that time the assistant pastor of the church—rose to fame by leading a boycott of shops along 125th Street that would sell to African-American shoppers but would not hire them to work at the stores. This “Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work” movement boosted Powell’s political prominence; in 1937, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., took over the pulpit at Abyssinian Baptist, and in 1941 he became New York’s first black city council member. In 1944, he was elected to the House of Representatives—the first African-American from New York—and served until 1970, when he was replaced by Charlie Rangel. (Together, that means that Harlem has been represented by only two men for the past 63 years!) In congress, Powell was integral to the Civil Rights movement and as chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor saw to it that legislation on school lunches, student loans, and the minimum wage got passed.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is hosting an all-day event beginning at 11:00AM celebrating Powell’s life and accomplishments. (Birthday cake will be served at 4:00PM.)

Two interesting side notes about Powell:

·         The mammoth building at 125th Street that now bears his name was one of the last things he adamantly opposed as Harlem’s representative. He at one point threatened to leave New York and settle permanently in his second home in Bimini should the building be constructed. When it first opened in 1974, it was simply the “State Office Building in Harlem”—Powell’s name was not attached until 1983.

·         In 1960, he slandered a constituent, Esther James, claiming she was a “bag woman” for the Mafia. James sued and was awarded $46,000 that Powell refused to pay. When charged with contempt, Powell would only come back to Harlem on Sundays—when civil contempt subpoenas could not be served—to preach at Abyssinian Baptist. A judge eventually gave Powell more time to come up with the money and one way he attempted to raise funds was by issuing a spoken word LP, Keep the Faith, Baby!, containing some of his most famous speeches.


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As always,  more information about Powell and the history of Harlem can be found in our book, Inside the Apple, which is coming out in March but is available for pre-order today.


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