William Stevens Powell

Memorial by H. G. Jones

Read at the October 9, 2015 HSNC meeting

William Stevens Powell, North Carolina’s preeminent historian and a founding member of this Historical Society of North Carolina, was born in Johnston County on April 28, 1919, grew up in Iredell County, and died in Orange County on April 10, 2015.  Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Virginia; three children, John Powell, Charles Powell, and Ellen Feild; eleven grandchildren; and one great-grandson.  An obituary, sanctioned by himself, appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer for April 12, 2015.

Powell graduated from Mitchell Junior College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before serving in the Army during World War II.  Afterward he earned two more degrees from UNC-CH—a bachelor’s degree in library science and a master’s in history.  An honorary doctorate was later bestowed upon him by both Campbell University and Davidson College.

Powell’s career in history began as a researcher in the State Department of Archives and History, where he met a Meredith College student, Virginia Waldrop, who became both his wife and his right hand in organizing his voluminous research notes.  From 1951 until 1973 Powell served as librarian of the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library at UNC-CH; and in the latter year he was appointed professor of history at the university.  (It is reported that when a member of the faculty committee questioned Powell’s qualification for a full professorship, Dr. Jim Patton began piling copies of Powell’s publications on the table and challenged any member to match the candidate’s productivity.  The motion for appointment was passed unanimously.)   As an immensely popular teacher of North Carolina history, Professor Powell retired in 1986, by which time it was estimated that he had taught at least 6,000 students representing all of the state’s one-hundred counties.

A further biographical note, along with a select bibliography of Powell’s extensive writings, was published in the April 2015 issue of the North Carolina Historical Review.  An earlier bibliography prepared by Powell himself (and including several of his more obscure writings) was printed in David Stick and William C. Friday, William S. Powell: North Carolina Historian (Chapel Hill: North Caroliniana Society, 1985).  Together, those bibliographies illustrate the legacy of the man whose research and writings have been referenced more often by historians than those of any other North Carolinian.  Of offices held and honors received, it can be said that Bill Powell (as he was universally called by his peers) received every one merited by a North Carolina historian, including the coveted North Carolina Award for Literature.

Bill Powell’s interest in history was demonstrated during his youth.  He explained in his magnum opus, “In 1929, when I was ten years old, I began talking with ‘old timers’ and keeping notes about subjects they remembered from their youth.  This initial spark of historical curiosity has remained within me, and I have been pleased to witness a similar exuberance in the several hundred writers and editorial interns who have made the Encyclopedia of North Carolina  such a monumental work.”  [p. xi]  That same exuberance inspired the compilation and publication of other indispensable reference works, such as The North Carolina Gazetteer and the six-volume Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.

* * * * *

I speak as one of the few surviving historians of the World War II generation and as one who for more than a half century knew Bill Powell personally and shared some of his passion, travail, and success.  In short, I followed—and my own career was enormously enriched by—Bill Powell.

While I was at Duke, working on my biography of Bedford Brown, research took me to the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the very youthful staff member, seemingly walking on air, introduced himself with a whiplash greeting, “I’m Bill Powell,” and a warm offer of assistance.  Then my diary, now in its 78th year, records that on December 7, 1956, when I received one of the early R.D.W. Connor Awards for the Brown biography, I proudly wrote, “Sat at head table between Bill & Virginia Powell.”  That was the beginning of many entries recording visits in the Powell home and our rides together to meetings, opportunities for Bill to reminisce about interesting events of his childhood or to excitedly tell me about his latest historical discovery.

When I became State Archivist that year, Bill, a former researcher in the Department of Archives and History, was one of my early well-wishers, and soon we became collaborators in the preservation of North Carolina history.  I will cite just two examples of projects that could not have been successful without Bill’s full cooperation and assistance:

1.  The State Archives over five decades had accumulated many thousands of pamphlets relating to North Carolina, but the agency had no staff member trained in library cataloging.  In other words, the resource was lying fallow.  Early on, Powell agreed for the North Carolina Collection to accept the materials, catalog those appropriate to fill gaps in the UNC Library’s holdings, and pass the remainder to East Carolina Teachers College, which was on the verge of university status and in need of a strengthened library.  This transaction benefitted all three institutions and set an example for interlibrary cooperation.

2. The Department of Archives and History, the State Library, and the UNC Library each had vast numbers of North Carolina newspapers, many of them crumbling.  Powell delegated a staff member to serve on a Committee on the Conservation of Newspaper Resources, and with the good fortune of a staff member assigned by the State Archives, the committee presented to Governor Terry Sanford in 1963 a Union List of North Carolina Newspapers 1751-1900, edited by Julius H Avant.  The logical next step was the establishment in the Department of Archives and History a newspaper microfilming program that sought to preserve on microfilm a copy of every known issue of a North Carolina newspaper to 1900.  No other state had accomplished such a feat.

* * * * *

In 1974, with a Duke doctorate, I succeeded Bill Powell as Curator of the North Carolina Collection, which he and Miss Mary Lindsay Thornton had built into the largest accumulation of published works by residents of, or relating to, a single state in the union.  That was two years after publication of Bill’s tribute to his alma mater, The First State University, and I remained associated with the University until completion of his mammoth Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.  During those years, even with his heavy official duties, Bill joined me in establishing the American Quadricentenial Corporation, which facilitated the construction of the Elizabeth II, and the North Caroliniana Society, now in its fortieth year as a model eleemosynary organization.  I even leaned on our friendship to the extent of persuading Bill to research and write a bicentennial history of my home county, When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County, North Carolina, 1777-1977.  That association afforded me more opportunities to share in his research.

While teaching, Bill retained a carrel in the North Carolina Collection, so he darted in and out—often excitedly asking (and sometimes answering himself)— “Guess what I just found!”  I was at first puzzled by the bevy of student assistants that he had working assiduously around the Collection, all writing notes on little three-by-five-inch slips of paper that were later alphabetically arranged and filed in discarded file cabinets squirreled around the crowded stacks.   Each student, I was to learn, was abstracting names of individuals or places or subjects, and noting the source of each.  Here were the raw materials for the great Powell trilogy. (Incidentally, one of those student assistants, who inconspicuously abstracted data on those little slips, subsequently emerged as one of the most successful behind-the-scenes political strategists North Carolina has ever produced.)

I began to recognize that Bill Powell’s contribution to history was not just his own writings—as extensive as they were—but especially his skill in harnessing the interest and excitement of others—hundreds of others—in the collection of datum that found its way into the North Carolina Gazetteer, the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, or the indispensable Encyclopedia of North Carolina.  I also witnessed another secret of Bill’s enormous success:  He wasted no time.  With discarded catalog cards in his pocket and five minutes to spare between classes or appointments, he could scribble notes on whatever subject might interest him, whether in casual conversation or in serious research, and Virginia would carefully file them.

* * * * *

Almost exactly fifty years ago—April 9, 1965—I stood in the Candlelight Inn on the outskirts of Greenville and delivered, before this same Historical Society of North Carolina, the first modern biographical sketch of the man whose work I described as the source of more citations by historians than those of any North Carolinian who ever lived.  I remember the occasion particularly because afterward Phillips Russell described mine as the best paper he had ever heard at a meeting of this organization.  But as you know, Phillips didn’t have a PhD and I had just received mine, so I shrugged off the compliment.  The paper must not have been that good anyway, for it remained unpublished until 2010, when Bill Price included it in the North Caroliniana Society Imprints No. 48, The Collection and Publication of the Colonial Records of North Carolina.

This afternoon [October 9, 2015], as I did in 1965 (this time with Justice Willis Whichard  as witness), I paused beside a tombstone in the Calvary Episcopal Church Cemetery in Tarboro and again read the last line, “I decline to answer,” credited as the first invocation, before a Congressional committee, of the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.  If the occupant’s spirit had emerged from the grave, I was prepared to offer condolence for the bad press that he has been getting recently.  But for the sake of history, I was prepared to give him even worse news: that the name of William S. Powell has overtaken that of William L. Saunders as the most quoted name in North Carolina historical research!

See also: