CHAPTER 3. MY FAMILY
I knew my maternal grandparents who both died when I was quite young. It is probable that they lived at least part of their lives as slaves. I know also that part of my grandparents' families were slaves on Patrick Henry's plantation. I know also that some of my ancestors lived in Amherst County and that Patrick Henry's sister also lived in Amherst. If there is a connection here, I hope that my research will uncover it.
I have a first cousin here in Lynchburg (my mother's home), Mrs. Freddie Penn, who I want to consult and enlist her assistance in tracing my family history.
I went to the Powell-Robinson family reunion over the 4th of July weekend. The festivities were held at the old home place in Middlesex County, Virginia. . . .
The property on which the reunion was held was purchased by my great-grandfather "Old Man Billy Powell," as he was known, sometime before the Civil War, and thus has been in the family for about 125 years. He was never a slave. He was free because of a bizarre set of circumstances and because of the peculiar race laws of that time. Billy Powell married a slave woman and was required to "hire" her from her owner so that they could live together as man and wife. The children of that union were automatically slaves and the property of the family that owned the mother.
My paternal grandparents were slaves. William Joseph, Old Man Billy's son, my grandfather, was eleven years old when freedom came (1863). Laura Ann Fleet, who later became his wife, was seven years old when she, like all slaves, was freed at the end of the Civil War. . . .
My grandparents, former slaves, raised a family of twelve children. By any standards, my grandparents would be considered ignorant. I doubt that either of them could read or write. And they were poor, desperately poor.
As the children grew, they were pressed into service in the laborious field work that is a part of farming. Sometimes the older boys went fishing and "oystering" with their father. (Oystering in those times was incredibly hard muscle work with the primitive tongs then in use. I have a cousin who used to make his living oystering with tongs. Although he is a small man, his shoulders, chest, and upper arms are incredibly over developed, his wrists are nearly twice as large as mine.)
Somehow, there was time for school, such schools as were available in those times. School, although it operated only a few months each year, must have been a welcome relief to the unending drudgery and boredom of farm life.
The boys of the family learned the carpenter's trade. My father was an especially skilled carpenter and boat builder.
And then there was church. The church in those times, played a much more important role in the community than it does today. I suspect that church was as much a purely social outlet as a place of worship.
My mother was born September 12, 1891 in Amherst, Virginia, Mrs. Powell was one of six children of Mary and John Paul Davies, a trainer of race horses. Her parents, the children of freed slaves, moved the family to a comfortable two-story house with a garden about 25 miles away, in Lynchburg, when she was a young girl.
Of my mother's generation, only the girls went to college. "Her parents believed in educating just the girls" my sister Oscelletta McCreary said. "They didn't want the girls going into someone's kitchen to work." The men worked as mechanics and in other jobs requiring skilled hands.
In Lynchburg, Virginia she met my father as both were students at Virginia Seminary. My father was a farmer brought up in rural Tidewater Virginia where he learned, by necessity, about growing things, about crops, planting and harvesting, animal care, and the thousand and one things a farmer must know if he is to survive and prosper. He was also a carpenter and in his youth he built houses and boats. Boat building with such tools as they had in those days was a difficult matter requiring a high degree of know-how and skill.
The two continued their relationship while my father studied at Lincoln University in southern Chester County. She, meanwhile, taught elementary school in Virginia before enrolling in Howard University, from which she graduated in 1915.
She became a teacher at Avery Institute, Charleston, South Carolina and resigned to become the bride of Dr. W.H.R. Powell June 23, 1915 who had been called as pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church, Alexandria.
Their first child, Mary Lauretta Powell Lamb, was born around 1916. The next sister, the now Oscelletta Powell McCreary, arrived in 1917. Then came my brother, William Holland Rowland Powell (1921), followed by the now Bertha Powell Snead (1922).
He left Alexandria when called to Carron Street Baptist Church in Pittsburgh. I have little information about his tenure there. What was significant for me was that I was born in Pittsburgh in January 1924.
Later in the year 1924 father moved again, this time to one of Philadelphia's great old churches, the Shiloh Baptist Church on 21st and Christian Streets in South Philadelphia. He remained pastor of Shiloh for the next 52 years. My father wrote of his church that "During the years of her history, she had achieved great distinction and wide acclaim. Her pulpit has been occupied by some of the great ministers of the race, of the church, and of the nation. Here emphasis on sound doctrine, attractive, but sound and cultured worship, upon missions, education, and progressive living had given her a name locally and considerable influence nationally. Indeed, for a number of years, Shiloh enjoyed a great distinction among Philadelphia churches in terms of location, church building, and membership. For good or ill, these distinction had given her a sense of pride and of an importance worthy of a great people."
I grew up in Shiloh. In retrospect, I believe Shiloh to have been an unusually warm, friendly body of people. Experiences gained since I left Philadelphia confirm this. There was at Shiloh none of the cold, aloof, standoffishness that I have encountered at times in other churches. I don't believe that a stranger could attend services at Shiloh and leave without having been recognized, without having received a genuine, warm, friendly welcome and an invitation to return. The congregation at Shiloh consisted for the most part of just plain, ordinary working people. There were few professionals in the gathering. They were, in the main, poor people, but they were good people. I can never forget the support and kindness they extended to their pastor and his family throughout the years he was associated with the church.
The last addition to our immediate family came with the birth of the now Geraldine Powell Adams (1925). So, we were a family of four girls and two boys.
I have often heard my father described as a dignified person; a man of impressive dignity. That description, while flattering, needs to be redefined when applied to this unusual Christian. My father did not possess the kind of dignity that kept him aloof and removed from even the humblest members of his congregation. No, he related to them as a brother. He sympathized with their problems and he shared their joy as well as their grief. He loved them and they loved him.
Nor was his dignity such that it prevented him from donning his work clothes and applying himself to the most menial tasks when necessary. A modest, unassuming man, my father rarely spoke of past achievements so that it has only been with some difficulty that I have learned some fascinating bits of his history. An illustration is that I only recently learned, and then in a sort of offhand, incidental manner, that as pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, Dr. Powell established in the basement of the church the first, and for a while, the only library available to black Alexandrians. I learned also that during that same pastorate, he petitioned the federal government for compensation owed by the government to the church since Civil War days at which time the government seized the church and used it as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers, thus depriving the membership of a place to worship. The government acknowledged the debt and paid the church a substantial amount of money. With the proceeds, Dr. Powell built a parsonage, a handsome building that still stands and is used by the church, I believe, as a rental property. Rev. Powell, an excellent carpenter, drew the plans for the parsonage and did the actual building himself (with help, of course). I don't have confirmation for my belief that he accepted no compensation for his labors, but it would have been atypical of him to have accepted any remuneration for his efforts.
Perhaps my father was a little too good for his own welfare. He tended to sacrifice too much and at times was taken advantage of by those with far greater concern for their own advancement. This was the situation at Virginia Seminary.
When I was around two years old, my father, the Rev. W. H. R. Powell, started serving as part-time president of Virginia Seminary (beginning in August 1926) in Lynchburg, Virginia. Virginia Seminary began with the hopes that blacks could and would support an institution of higher learning that would be more independent of the white man. (With hindsight we can see that this was apparently a vastly overly-optimistic hope. And it was and continues to be the flaw in the side of the institution that has always haunted and plagued it.)
There it sits on the hill named after it: Virginia Theological Seminary and College. It has not fared well in recent years. Everywhere on that site are signs of neglect and deterioration. Gone is the dome that once crowned the tower on Humbles Hall. Hayes Hall is a crumbling wreck, collapsing inward on itself as weather and time and neglect exact their toll of this once stately and attractive building. Fox Hall is, for all practical purposes, abandoned and useless and though some attempts have been made to preserve and beautify it, nothing can disguise the fact that Fox Hall is, and always has been, an architectural monstrosity, looking more like a factory or a warehouse than a college dormitory.
That leaves Humbles Hall, the Science Library building and the dormitory which apparently replaced Hayes and Fox Halls as living quarters for such students as live on campus. There is also Graham Hall, the dining room which sits a little apart from the other buildings. Humbles Hall houses the administrative offices, classrooms, a library, and upstairs a large, bare auditorium. There it sits on a tiny plot of not more than three acres, crowded and compressed, bound on all sides by neighboring residences.
In spite of its present appearance and difficulties, however, and as hard as it is to believe, at one time Virginia Seminary enjoyed a unique and enviable record of achievement. Seminary was among the foremost as a preparatory school for ministers and ministers trained at Seminary filled pastorates across the nation, sometimes with noteworthy success.
At one time, there were more than five hundred students on the "hill." Seminary boasted a proud record in athletic competition with other black colleges during these years.
In those bygone days, Seminary had a well-trained faculty and enjoyed the enthusiastic support of black churches in the state. Seminary had the support and interest of Black people in the Lynchburg area. They were proud of their school and followed with interest the affairs on the hill.
Rev. Powell was brought in because the school found itself seriously embarrassed for funds and deeply in debt. He was shocked at some of the business practices he discovered. A contractor came to the school one day to put in a new heating system. The contractor mentioned that the Reverend would be receiving a chunk of the money (a kick-back). My father was absolutely shocked and started to raise hell with the businessman. The man just looked at him in utter amazement. He could not believe that the Reverend could be so "moralistic" and "naive." But father was a very honest man and was always upset whenever her heard news of the misbehavior of his fellow ministers. He once said to my brother and I that no matter what "hair-brained" scheme might pass among the city's congregations, there was always some jack-ass of a minister behind it.
Taking active charge, he worked without cost to the institution. (And for a total of fifteen years of service he never took a fee.) At the same time he pastored his church in Philadelphia. My father served as president of Virginia Seminary through two terms. The first, beginning on December 8, 1926, ended with his resignation on July 3, 1929. The second term of office began September 1, 1934 and ended June 1, 1946 the date of his second resignation.
A member of the Trustee Board of Virginia Seminary, Dr. Powell was first elected to the presi- dency by action of the Board in a meeting at Blackstone, Virginia in August 1926. His writings (On Being a Part-Time President) make it clear that he neither sought the presidency nor in any way attempted to influence the decision of the Board. His election was the result of a free and voluntary decision of the members of the Board.
A devout Christian, Dr. Powell earnestly and prayerfully sought divine guidance before making a decision regarding the offer. After much prayerful contemplation, and only when he was satisfied that it was God's will that he accept the office as president of the institution, did he agree to take on the responsibilities of the job.
But he was faced with a dilemma. He was beginning his third year as pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Yet within sixty days following his election in Virginia, so convinced was he that he was following divine guidance that his resignation was before the church along with a public announcement of his intention to become president of Virginia Seminary and he tended his resignation from the church.
Having stated his decision to act as president of Virginia Seminary and having submitted his resignation to the church, Dr. Powell journeyed to Lynchburg to assume the office of the president. Imagine his surprise when he learned that the tenure of the former president had not yet terminated. Of this totally unexpected development, Dr. Powell writes: "Certain commitments of the Board to him, which they were powerless to honor at the time, made it impossible for anyone to tell when his service would end."
Technically then, Dr. Powell was neither pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church nor president of Virginia Seminary. "Yet despite the embarrassment," Dr. Powell writes, " I insisted upon my resignation from the church and held myself in readiness for the work of the school when and should that office become vacant."
The reaction of the members of the Shiloh Baptist Church to this situation is an illustration of how beloved my father was. Speaking of the church and his resignation, Dr. Powell writes, "Her pastors had been selected with prayerful care. They had been honorably supported and for the most part retained for life. My resignation therefore created a precedent in nearly seventy-five years of tradition. I was beloved by the church. Under the circumstances they were not prepared to sever the fellowship without objection. Upon receipt of my resignation, it was by unanimous vote referred to a judicial committee chosen from the church at large. Following careful deliberation, the committee presented its findings to the church. It was their unanimous opinion and recommendation that the resignation be tabled, that the pastor be given a furlough for ninety days with salary, that he be requested to go and make careful examination of the situation at the school, that the pulpit be supplied in the meantime, that the pastor be asked to baptize and serve communion on each third Lord's Day, and that at the expiration of the time allotted he be asked to inform the church of his decision."
At the end of the ninety day period, Dr. Powell was asked for his decision. He replied that he still intended to serve the school and was merely waiting until the presidency was vacated. Whereupon the church voted to extend the time for making a decision. Over the next two years, the question would come up again and again. Each time, Dr. Powell reported that his intention was to resign and each time the church made a counter request that he not leave. Eleven times in that two year period the question of the pastor's resignation was brought before the church and eleven times the resignation was rejected by vote.
We can only conclude that a most unusual relationship existed between the pastor and the membership. The pastor, much beloved by his parishioners, generously and enthusiastically reciprocated their love.
None of this is meant to convey the idea that the church was unanimous in its decisions in this instance. There were dissenters among the membership who believed (and rightly so) that if their pastor wanted to leave, then he should leave. They wanted a "full-time pastor" and they did not believe that any man could divide his attention and efforts and be effective in either job.
"However," Dr. Powell writes, " be it said to the glory of God and to the everlasting credit of those in the church who disliked what I was doing, that their objections had almost always to do with the question of relationship, and were, with very few exceptions, never anything personal. Many of them are today my best friends. They respect and have ever supported my ministry and the work of the church."
The presidential office of Virginia Seminary became vacant three months after Dr. Powell's election, so we can assume that commitments to the former president had been satisfied. Upon learning that the office of president was now vacant, Dr. Powell once again returned to Lynchburg, this time to meet with a committee that had been assigned to assess the condition of the school. Based on its findings, the committee recommended that Dr. Powell take over the school as a duly elected officer of the Board, close down the institution and send the students home. The committee arrived at this decision after discovering that there was not money with which to continue to operate.
To give some idea of just how desperate was the condition of the school: while the above discussion was taking place, a representative from the Utilities Department of the city presented an overdue water bill of $48.50 for which he demanded payment on the spot. Unless immediate payment was forthcoming, the water would be cut off, and that, of course, would have necessitated closing the school. The school's bank balance at that time was $4.70 dollars.
A minister who had accompanied Dr. Powell to the school, Dr. Fletcher Williams, of Darby, Pennsylvania, donated money to the school with which to pay the bill.
Dr. Powell disagreed with the decision to close down the operation, and this decision, in view of the grim circumstances and the very nearly hopeless prospects for the successful continuation of the effort, must have seemed rash and foolhardy, little short of madness, for even the Trustees themselves were without hope. One is compelled to wonder what Dr. Powell's decision might have been had he been able to glimpse into the future.
"Instead of closing down the school" he writes, "I proposed that we make an effort to continue. After some discussion, my suggestion to carry on was accepted. But this decision to continue was based upon my offer to lend the institution $500 dollars with which to start the effort and the further promise that I would give whatever service I could in a part-time manner. In a Board meeting, February 8, 1927, I was advised publicly by the Chairman of the Trustee Board not to resign my church. The situation at the school is too uncertain. Continue as "part-time" president until such time the Board can determine whether the school can continue.'
"Whereupon I stated that I thought that my church would consent to such an arrangement and, as long as they did so consent and paid my salary, I would make no charge to the institution for service rendered beyond expenses, until such time as the situation had improved."
Dr. Powell soon made some unsettling discoveries. He found that the school was without commercial credit, so that whatever supplies, food , coal, books, and office supplies vital to the operation had to be paid for on the spot or credited to some individual. Even the school's bank account could not be carried in the name of the school. He was obliged, since there were no coherent records left by his predecessor, to correlate bills as they were presented in order to find out who was owed and how much was owed.
The condition of Virginia Seminary at the time of the first Powell administration was as follows: 334 students to be taught, fed, and housed; a faculty of 24 and other staff members and service personnel whose salaries had to be met each month; a debt of $222,000 dollars; and a loss of commercial credit which imposed many formidable problems.
Permit me to digress here to explain more fully what a debt of that size meant in those times. Modern Americans have become so accustomed to thinking in terms of millions, and even billions, that a mere $220,000 dollars seems an inconsequential, almost a trifling sum. In that time, however, given the income potential of the school, it was a monstrous sum, a staggering, daunting burden. And when we consider that just down the road ahead, during the Depression years, the total income of Virginia Seminary from all sources for one year was less than $7,000 dollars, we can appreciate what an awesome matter a debt of $222,000 dollars must have been.
"However," writes Dr. Powell, "I still insisted upon serving the school. I did not withdraw my resignation from the church. In the semi-annual meeting at the school, November 25, 1927, I offered to come to the school as president if the trustees found it possible to provide the change. (I interpret this to mean if the Trustees would underwrite the costs of relocating.) They could not! And I continued as "part-time president" and in so doing, made still another discovery."
After studying the school's potential income, assets, liabilities, and other related business matters, he discovered that "the school, as then operated, was headed for inevitable collapse. The income of the school was simply not sufficient to cover the costs of operating and other overhead and to satisfy the debt."
Despite the fact that the constituency, that is the area churches, the trustees and others sympathetic to the cause, were making Herculean, super-human effort to buoy up the sinking ship, and although their efforts yielded to the school record-breaking amounts of money from December 8, 1926 through July 31, 1929 ( a total of $151,508.90 dollars), it was still far short of the amounts necessary for the school to remain in operation. Alarmed by this discovery, Dr. Powell tried by every means available to him to bring to the attention of the Trustees the gravity of the situation. He carefully prepared a balance statement which was presented to each of the Trustees at their annual meeting on May 6, 1928. This balance sheet was a detailed and itemized statement showing the total assets of the institution together with a correlation of all bills which had been presented to him for payment from December 6, 1926 through April 30, 1928.
The trustees ignored the report. Even with the evidence in black and white before them, they treated the matter as a minor annoyance, as a matter hardly worthy of their attention. Possibly, these trustees were lulled into a sense of false security by the appearance of things. After all, Seminary had a student body of more than 300 and adequate staff, and things seemed to be going well (at least on the surface). It is probable that these men did not understand the delicate balance between student body size and income. A large student body, they may have reasoned, guarantees income large enough to cover costs of operation. But the reality is that student body size must be determined by the income of the school. (It is axiomatic in college circles that students pay only about one third of the cost of their education. In the case of state sponsored colleges, revenue from the state compensates for the shortfall. In the case of private colleges, the shortfall is offset by endowments, gifts, and income from investments. The delicate balance between student body size and income must be maintained. There can be no increase in student body size unless there is a corresponding increase in income. The alternative is deficit spending.)
Whatever the reason -- ignorance, indifference, apathy, or an unwillingness to face reality -- the trustees took no action to protect themselves and the school from the impending crisis.
THE FIRST RESIGNATION
Dr. Powell writes:
"But as for myself, I was convinced that unless the creditors and the trustees could be persuaded to agree on some compromise, the financial structure of the institution was bound to collapse. . . . More than that I saw very plainly that I could not avert the crisis. And if I remained even as part-time president,' I would be unable to escape the blame for the crisis certain to be laid to my charge."
This illustrates how clearly Dr. Powell understood the treachery of which some of the trustees were capable. He knew that these "fine Christian gentlemen," despite having been repeatedly warned that a crisis loomed, would pretend surprise, shock, dismay and outrage when the crisis materialized. They would then blame whoever was in charge of the institution, laying the blame for the collapse at his feet. The shameful accuracy of this prediction is borne out in the Vernon Johns episode which follows.
Continuing, Dr. Powell writes, "For there was even then an insistent claim that all that was needed was a full-time president - that if the school had raised more than $150,000 dollars in so short a time with me as only a part-time president,' it stood to reason that it would do all right if only it had a full-time president.'
"Of course, such reasoning did not consider the personal element. The fact that perhaps the constituency did have confidence in the "part-time president" himself, which accounted for part of the response in the emergency, was overlooked.
"I resigned. And I resigned to the end that I might conserve my influence and usefulness for a later date."
Despite the great efforts of my father, fiscal matters at Virginia Seminary were terrible. My father had handed in his resignation but in February 1929 the board of Virginia Seminary rejected the resignation of President Powell. Dr. Powell was persuaded to stay on until the end of the semester.
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