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Before Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr., there was Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. — the most celebrated and controversial black politician of his generation. An astute businessman known as "Mr. Civil Rights," he represented Harlem for twenty-four years in the House of Representatives. He was a man of the cloth and a civil rights leader, but Powell's reputation for flamboyance, arrogance, and womanizing made him his own worst enemy. In this towering and definitive biography, acclaimed journalist ...
Before Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr., there was Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. — the most celebrated and controversial black politician of his generation. An astute businessman known as "Mr. Civil Rights," he represented Harlem for twenty-four years in the House of Representatives. He was a man of the cloth and a civil rights leader, but Powell's reputation for flamboyance, arrogance, and womanizing made him his own worst enemy. In this towering and definitive biography, acclaimed journalist Wil Haygood paints a vivid portrait of one of black America's most memorable dignitaries.
Come evening, long shadows fell across the shoulders of the young men strolling on the Colgate University campus, still a lush green as the school year began in 1916. Set in the Chenango hills of upstate New York, it was an all-male school with an all-male faculty, sober scholars drumming moral and religious maturity into their charges. Pines and firs and cedars -- "everlasting trees which hide the morning" went a renowned Colgate verse -- stretched along the campus pathways. The young man taking long strides across the campus alone -- alone now because he courted anonymity, although years later acquaintances recalled a figure seemingly always alone -- was Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., miles from his home in Harlem. Sent here by a concerned father following two disastrous semesters at the City College of New York, he had been lectured to reform. Family name and future were both at stake.
It was not Yale or Harvard, schools that Colgate men mockingly referred to as "Eli Yale" and "fair old Harvard"; it was Colgate, and it clung tightly to its own mystique. Colgate men survived fierce winters and the remoteness of their campus. They climbed steep hills to reach classrooms and sat dailyon benches in chapel to give prayer. Sport was encouraged, and they played in hale and hearty fashion. A year before young Powell's arrival, the football team, often playing against larger schools with larger players, went undefeated, and Powell was interested in joining George Hauser's gridiron team. To be a Colgate man was to endure; Colgate was not an institution for the effete.
Four other blacks, athletes all, arrived on campus along with Powell. He knew none of them. Merton Anderson, the lone senior among the group, was eager to play mentor. For several years Anderson, who came from a small Pennsylvania town, had been the only black at Colgate, but this year was different. There was a sophomore transfer student, Ray Vaughan, and the athletic department had brought two additional blacks to the campus, John Enoch and Daniel Crosby. Their presence seemed to reflect more a desire to win at sport than outright progressivism by the administration, but Anderson was nevertheless anxious to tell the newcomers about Colgate, the traditions and the academic rigors, especially the isolation and the brutal winters that lay ahead. After classes one evening Enoch, Crosby, and Vaughan walked over to Anderson's dormitory room. When they arrived, Anderson greeted them with interesting news. He had been tipped off that there was another black on campus. The, unknown student, he had also learned, was not an athlete. He was exasperated. "I can't find him," he said to the others. Anderson suspected that whoever the missing student was, he was passing himself off as white. At Colgate blacks roomed with other blacks or alone.
Adam Clayton Powell had quietly settled into Anderson Hall, where his roommate, Howard Patterson, from Brooklyn, assumed that he was white. Powell was finding the Colgate environment vastly different from that of City College. City College was near his old high school, near friends and girls, and so near his home that he had lost his ability to concentrate. Here there was peace -- woods to walk in and hills to climb. Traipsing into town, he quickly found the corner store popular with all Colgate students, and he hoarded tobacco and bought any of the dozen New York newspapers that kept the young men of Colgate abreast of world news. Hamilton was only a small village that abutted the campus and existed for the life that Colgate students gave to it. Young Powell wasted little time in wooing his first date, the daughter of a local white Baptist minister.
On weekends during the early part of the year, before the crunch of examinations, Colgate students often boarded the train in nearby Utica for New York City. There were Broadway shows to see, flappers to admire. Powell had told campus acquaintances that his father was a minister in New York, so one weekend a group of students who were in town looked up the address of the church. To their amazement, it was in Harlem -- in the black section of Harlem. Back on campus and giddy with the news, the students set about spreading the word: the minister's son at Colgate was black, not white.
"We had no idea," recalled Howard Patterson, Powell's roommate. Patterson was not predisposed to liberal experiments and demanded an immediate removal from the room. He was relieved when it was all "handled down at the admissions office."
Many on campus did not know what to make of the scandal. Whites were more bemused than anything else, as Powell had committed no crime. His fellow blacks, however, saw it differently. Merton Anderson's worst suspicions, of an anonymous student trying to pass himself off as white, had proven true. He felt that such an act was unforgivable, and for the remainder of his college career he avoided Powell. Anderson was as light-skinned as Powell, and while the act was surely not a crime, to him, prideful of his heritage, it meant one thing and one thing only: an attempt to hide one's background, in essence one's self.
Alone in his dormitory room, engulfed by the embarrassment and guilt most poseurs must confront when discovered, Powell had time to ponder the consequences of his actions. He could not have expected to pass as white much longer without being caught. It had been a mere game, albeit a dangerous one. For decades light-skinned blacks had posed as white when benefits could be gained, when the practicality of such a deception made sense. Thus, traveling in the South, Adam Powell Senior had often passed himself off as white at opportune moments -- when nearing a lynching party, for instance. His stories of lynchings were rooted in reality: he had seen such horrors with his own eyes. In 1924 he had traveled through Germany, becoming fascinated with the country, its history and landscape, but he had been careful to travel "incognito" there, too. Hadn't Adam's sister, Blanche, passed herself off as white before her death?
Excerpted from King of the Cats by WIl Haygood Copyright ©2006 by WIl Haygood. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 1, 2000
Outstanding. An accurate and honest picture of an American Hero. Fans of history and culture will all appreciate this book. A biography that casts a spotlight on an often overlooked great American.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.