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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Alma Powell, the quiet strength behind Colin Powell

There is a very very short entry in wikipedia about Alma Powell.

Alma Vivian Powell (née Johnson), born in Birmingham, Alabama, is an African American audiologist and the wife of military and political figure Colin Powell, whom she married on August 25, 1962. She is a graduate of Fisk University.

She is the mother of former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell. Her father and uncle were principals of two of the black high schools in Birmingham; Condoleezza Rice’s father worked in her uncle’s school as a guidance counselor.

Alma Powell is the Co-Chair of America’s Promise, an alliance of national organizations dedicated to teaching today’s youth. She has also authored two children’s books, America’s Promise and My Little Red Wagon.…

It really gives you no insight into the wife of one of the most prominent African-American’s in the world, who has just endorsed Barack Obama today. I realize that many of you here may not have the same view of the Powells as I do, but as a black woman I for one was exhilarated by the endorsement, and I know my parents, were they alive would have jumped for joy.  

I grew up with two school teacher’s as parents.  I can identify with the world that Alma Johnson grew up in;  her story is very similar to my own.

I have been told, by friends of the family, that Mrs. Powell has been supporting Barack Obama, quietly, for some time.  I don’t know the truth of the matter – but I think it is time that you get to know something about this woman, who  been a firm and quiet presence by her husband’s side for so many years now, who is not a woman who just stays at home, but who has been actively working for years to promote better education for this nation’s youth, focusing specifically on stemming the High School dropout rate.

The History Maker’s website which features the biographies of prominent African-American’s gives a bit more background

Alma Vivian Johnson Powell was born on October 27, 1937 in Birmingham, Alabama to Mildred Elisa Bell and Robert Charles Johnson. Powell is the eldest of two daughters. She attended Pratt Elementary School and Parker High School. Powell’s father was her high school principal. She graduated in 1954 and went on to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of sixteen. In 1957, Powell graduated from Fisk University with a B.A. degree.

Powell’s first job was as a radio show host. She had a show called Lunching with Alma that featured women’s news and lunchtime listening music. One year later, Powell decided to move North to Boston, Massachusetts. There, she went to Emerson University to study pathology and audiology. Between 1958 and 1962, Powell worked for the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing as an audiologist. In 1962, Powell met her husband, Gen. Colin L. Powell, and was married the same year in Powell’s hometown of Birmingham. Powell traveled around the world with her husband and family as her husband rose to the rank of general in the U.S. Army. Powell is currently the co-chair of America’s Promise The Alliance for Youth and is the author of children’s books including America’s Promise and My Little Wagon. Powell serves as vice chair of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and chair of the Pew Center for Civic Change.

Powell has received several awards and honors including the doctorate of humane letters from Emerson College in 1996; the Pew Center for Civic Change Award in 1997; and the Washingtonian of the Year Award for 2000.

Powell is married and has three children, Michael, Linda and Annemarie.…

Key in her life were her parents, and I was moved when she wrote of her mother, her earliest role model:

In her own words – Alma Powell speaks of her mom, Mildred Bell Johnson:


Resolved to Make a Difference

My mother didn’t set out to be a civil rights activist. In fact, she had no intention of becoming a trailblazer of any sort.

But because of the kind of person she was, and the times she lived through, in her own unassuming way Mildred Bell Johnson turned out to be both. She gave a whole group of black Alabama girls opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had, and became a role model for all of us.

Long before her time, Mama was a self-styled career woman. After earning a degree in education, she taught school in Birmingham. She married my father, a school principal, in 1936, and after my sister, Barbara, and I were born, she stayed home to care for us. But she still yearned for a life outside the home.

The hitch was, she could only go back to teaching if she came up with childcare for Barbara and me. So in 1941 she enlisted a group of local African American women’s clubs to buy an old Victorian house to operate as a preschool. The huge, sunny rooms and breezy porches also served as a meeting place for my mother’s first Girl Scout troop. Though this may seem a small thing now, at the time it was a watershed event. Overt racism was a fact of life in the 1940s, especially in the South, and African American girls were routinely barred from joining white troops. My mother, who was only five feet tall but could beat you on a fast-paced hike, decided it was time for a change. Her troop was the first for African Americans in Alabama. When Mama saw a need, she filled it.

And she refused to allow bigotry to intimidate or impede her. One night, when we were gathered in the kitchen for dinner, we talked about a news report on racial tensions in the area. She turned to my sister and me and said, “Let it be their problem, not yours.” That was the way she lived. We didn’t dwell on what was fair or unfair, what we did or didn’t have. She created opportunities.

The Powell wedding


Life as a young military wife after marriage to Colin was not easy – particularly at that time in our nation’s history:

From an Ebony Magazine Interview with Alma Powell:

When Colin Powell first went to Vietnam in 1963, Alma Powell was a bride off four months. The pair had met on a blind date in Boston, where Alma, who attended Fisk University and did her graduate work at Emerson College, worked as a speech pathologist.

“I was pregnant with my first child,” she recalls of Colin’s first Vietnam tour. So she went home to live with her parents in Birmingham, Ala., then in the grip of race riots. Her father and uncle were principals of the city’s two Black high schools.

“It was like we had two wars going on at once,” she says. “In Birmingham, people were hurt, children were killed. What made it more difficult in the early days of the Vietnam War was that no one knew you were over there. But then again, you didn’t have the anti-war demonstrators, either.”…

A Newsweek article also covered this part of her life.

Life right after being married:

On her husband’s last night before leaving for a second i tour of duty in Vietnam, Alma Powell asked to be taken out to dinner. Mrs. Powell, who had grown up in Birmingham, Ala., at a time when blacks weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountains as whites, wanted to dine at Birmingham’s fanciest hotel, the Parliament House. That night in July 1968, the Powells were the restaurant’s only black patrons. But Major Powell, dressed in his best tailored suit from Hong Kong (bought during his first tour in Vietnam), and Mrs. Powell, “stylish as usual” in the nicest dress an army salary could afford, swept past the other diners to their table. Toward the end of dinner, Powell handed his wife an envelope. It contained instructions in case he was killed, including his desire to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Alma Powell took the envelope with her customary stoic grace. She had never quizzed her husband about the dangers he faced during his first tour, when he was dodging Viet Cong ambushes in the jungle of the A Shau Valley. And she never told Colin about the dangers she faced back home in Bull Connor’s segregated Birmingham-or “Bombingham,” as it was bitterly nicknamed after a series of white bombings in black neighborhoods. Alma’s father, R. C. Johnson, a prominent high-school principal, sat up at night with a shotgun on his lap to defend his house. Alma’s in-laws, living in Queens, N.Y., often called, pleading with her to leave Birmingham with her baby. Alma did not mention any of this inher letters because, Powell recalls, she “wanted . . . to support me with her love, not alarm me with her concerns.”…

Alma Powell


It is difficult to find much footage of Mrs. Powell – but I’ve chased down a few

Interview on Fox Local News…

Recently she was co-chair of Service Nation, and her were her recorded remarks:

Service Nation Summit speech:

Senator Obama  gave his views  on service at their forum, held at Columbia Univ. in NY:

Barack at Service Nation

Powell’s discussion of education, one of the key issues he brings up in the Meet the Press interview, references his wife – Alma.  This is the issue dearest to her heart.

As chair of America’s Promise :

I hope this has given some of you a glimpse of the woman who shares the life of Colin Powell, his greatest strength, and a role model for many of our youth.

I want to thank both of them, for today’s endorsement.

(cross posted to Daily Kos)


  1. NavyBlueWife

    An absolutely terrific angle on a great story.  I really admire women like Alma with such great and nobel accomplishments.

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