Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1908. His parents, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Mattie Buster Shaffer, were of African and European ancestry, and initially, very poor. The paternal ancestors of Powell Sr. were “free persons of color” before the civil war and labeled as “mulattos” in the 19th Century Census. Adam Sr. became a prominent minister in Philadelphia and New Haven, and the same year Powell Jr. was born, assumed the role of Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York.
Young Adam Clayton grew up in a wealthy household. This enabled him to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree from Colgate University and later earn a Master’s Degree from Columbia University. In the 1930s, he became a civil rights activist in Harlem. This led to Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Employment, where he brought political pressure on businesses to open their doors to black employees. In 1938, he succeeded his father as Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church.
In 1941, Adam Clayton Powell was elected to the New York City Council, making him the first African American to hold that position. Three years later, he reached another milestone by becoming the first African American to be elected as a New York Congressman. As a congressman, he challenged many racist practices: the use of the word “nigger” on the House floor; the use of “whites only” signs for House bathrooms and restaurants; denial of voting rights for blacks and the use of federal funds for segregated jurisdictions. The last principle would later be adopted into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1961, Powell became Chairman of the powerful United States House Committee on Education and Labor. However, years later, he was investigated, censored and stripped of that title for misuse of funds.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was married three times: Isabel Washington in 1933, Hazel Scott in 1945 and Yvette Flores Diago in 1960. He died April 4, 1972.