Wilmington, NC

Isaac Murray Powers: A man for all seasons

Claudia Stack
Grady Fennell holds a portrait of his great-grandfather, I.M. PowersPhoto byClaudia Stack

On March 17, 1918, The Wilmington Dispatch (Wilmington, NC) reported

that Isaac Murray Powers had spoken the day before in Wallace, NC at a

gathering organized by the Red Cross. The meeting took place at an

African American church, with the Red Cross chapter president speaking

first about “why each nation is at war, and showed the part each must play

to insure us winning.” Next, Powers addressed the audience:

Rev. Isaac Powers, colored pastor of a Baptist church, spoke of their duties to their nation and President. His patriotism was plainly exhibited in his speech. Many names were added to the roll...

Three months later, on June 3, 1918, a letter that Powers wrote to the

editor of the The Morning Star (Wilmington, NC) appeared in print. The

news item about Powers’ speech at the Red Cross meeting, and his letter

to the editor may seem like small occurrences, but they represent some

notable points: Powers was literate, despite having been born enslaved.

Teaching enslaved people to read was illegal in North Carolina from 1830 until Emancipation.

Additionally, Powers was respected in the region, such

that the editor chose to report on his speech and to publish his letter. Last

but not least, Powers had the courage to send his thoughts to a Wilmington

newspaper that had defended the 1898 Wilmington coup d'etat committed

by white supremacists just 20 years prior.

In his letter to the editor, what stands out is Powers’ stated conviction that

owning a home and land should be the primary goal of the “industrious

negro.” He wrote “The colored people of the south have for the last two

years been leaving the south by car loads....but whether or not it is best for

so many of these people to leave...is a question with us.” Powers’ letter


If they could not buy land in the south and could buy in the north, and were going to make money to buy homes up there... we could see the reason for the move. But to go north just for a little higher wages for the time being, with no idea of securing a home somewhere, and becoming permanent settlers and land owners, we do not see the wisdom in it. Some of these movers already own their homes, but in the rush they pull up and leave them or sell them at almost any price...

Powers’ letter is reminiscent of Booker T. Washington’s famous 1895

Atlanta Compromise speech, in which Washington admonished southern

African Americans to “cast down your bucket where you are.” In that

speech Washington mentioned real estate, but emphasized the value of

skilled trades and farming. Most of all, Washington recommended

maintaining good relationships with “the southern white man who is [your]

next door neighbor.”

By comparison, Powers’ message is more pragmatic. He expresses no

opinion about race relations in the letter, but instead urges African

Americans to acquire the assets that create generational wealth. An

examination of events that took place during Powers’ lifetime allows a

glimpse of things that likely affected his viewpoint.

Born into slavery in 1850 in northern New Hanover County (an area that

became Pender County in 1875), Powers was part of the generation that

emerged from enslavement. His story is one of investment in faith, family,

and education. Powers was known for his leadership throughout

southeastern North Carolina. Prior to the effective disenfranchisement of

North Carolina’s African American citizens in 1900, Powers was politically

active in the Republican Party. He was also a leading minister, a successful

farmer, and a strong advocate for education.

Although not much is known about his early life, Powers was apparently

certain who his parents were. On both of his marriage certificates (he

married in 1873, was widowed in 1927, and married again in 1930), Powers

listed his father as Thomas Allen and his mother as Margaret (Powers)

Murray. The fact that Powers was consistent in naming his parents over so

many years suggests a strong sense of self. Due to the sale of family

members and to the fact that enslavers could commit sexual assault with

impunity, those who emerged from enslavement did not always know who

their parents were.

Powers’ mother appears in several census records, but thus far it has not

been possible to place his father with certainty. There were three men

named Thomas Allen who resided in New Hanover County around the time

of Powers’ birth. Of course, his father might also have been a different

Thomas Allen, someone from outside the Cape Fear region.

Powers was most likely the surname of his enslaver, while Murray was the

surname of Powers’ stepfather, Hillory Murray. Emancipation and the

chance for freedmen to marry legally combined to create naming situations

for which there are no conventions. The young Isaac Powers apparently

took Murray as his middle name. Powers’ mother Margaret married Hillory

Murray in 1866. However, their cohabitation was listed as having begun in

1853 (three years after Isaac Powers was born). Like most enslaved

people, they could not marry legally until after Emancipation.

There were three enslavers with the surname Powers listed in the 1860

slave census of northern New Hanover County. Two of these men resided

in the area then known as South Washington (currently called Watha) in

present-day Pender County. Although the slave census did not list

enslaved individuals by name, it is possible that two people who were listed

as enslaved by a man named William Powers were in fact Margaret and

her son, Isaac.

That federal slave census shows that William Powers enslaved ten people

in 1860, including a 31 year-old woman and a 10 year-old boy. The 1870

census, the first to list the formerly enslaved by name, states that Margaret

was born in 1829. Therefore, the ages of those two people listed on the

slave census under William Powers are plausible matches for Margaret and

her son, Isaac.

Family lore, according to an article written by Harding “Coolidge” Powers,

one of Isaac Murray Powers’ grandsons, holds that the young Powers was

taught to read and write so that he could keep track of his enslaver’s trade

in barrels of tar. As NCPedia notes:

North Carolina's production of naval stores-tar, pitch, and turpentine, all products of the pine tree-began began in the 1720s and declined as a major industry by the Civil War...The nineteenth century saw further expansion in the industry, with a resurgence beginning in the 1830s and continuing through the 1850s. In 1840 North Carolina produced 95.9 percent of all naval stores in the United States.

However he acquired literacy, Powers used it to good advantage. Far from

the stereotype of gullible freedman, Powers embarked on a course of savvy

self-determination. Family stories say that Powers began buying land as

soon as he had saved a little money, and that at one point he owned

hundreds of acres in Duplin and Pender Counties. Deed records support

this claim. Over the years, Duplin County Register of Deeds Transactions

show Powers buying and selling property, as well as transferring property to

his children.

Powers married Caroline Tate in 1873, and around 1890 they built a house

on Route 1 in Wallace, NC. They would remain upstanding citizens of

Duplin County, NC for the rest of their lives. From this union eleven

children were born, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Powers had

more opportunities and freedom than his mother, but they shared the

heart-breaking experience of losing children. The 1910 census shows that

at age 81, Powers’ mother Margaret also lived in Duplin County. The

census taker noted that she had borne ten children, only three of whom

were still alive in 1910.

In the October 15, 1893 edition of the Wilmington Morning Star, Powers’

name was first in a section of the paper entitled “Colored Churches.” The

article stated “There will be preaching to-day at the First Baptist Church by

the Rev. I.M. Powers, from Duplin Road, at 3 o’clock p.m.” Although no

commentary accompanies the event, the fact that Powers is the first person

listed probably signifies that he was a popular preacher. In 1893 Powers

would have been 43 years old, a seasoned preacher, yet someone who still

had youthful energy.

Also a strong proponent of education, Powers acted in his role as a

member of the Executive Board of the Middle District Missionary Baptist

Association (MDMBA) to sign the deed for land the MDMBA purchased in

Burgaw, NC to establish what became the CF Pope School. The school

was first organized to train ministers in 1891, but quickly expanded its

mission to general education. In 1914, Professor Cicero Franklin Pope was

appointed principal, and the school became the Burgaw Normal & Industrial


In the early 1900s, most of Pender County’s African American teachers

were alumni of the school. Under Pope’s leadership, the school became an

accredited high school in 1924. The Pender County School Board took

over its operation in 1936, making it one of two public high schools

available to African American students in Pender County (versus five for an

approximately equal number of European American students). It was

renamed Burgaw Colored High School. In 1952, the school was renamed

again to honor Pope.

The CF Pope School influenced our state and our nation through its

many accomplished alumni, including distinguished playwright and

actor Samm-Art Williams and nursing pioneer Mary Mills, to name

just a few.

Powers continued to be involved with both the MDMBA and the CF

Pope School for many years. Newspaper articles in 1908, 1910, 1915

and 1916 all note Powers speaking at Baptist Conventions held

around the state. Likewise, the Wilmington Star reported in October,

1916 that he spoke during the annual meeting of the MDMBA, which

included matters related to the CF Pope School. In April, 1917 the

Wilmington Dispatch devoted a long column to the school’s graduation

ceremony, one of the highlights being that Powers gave the

commencement address.

Powers was also recognized as a leader beyond church and education

matters. One sign of this was that he was empaneled on a federal grand

jury in October, 1894. A notice published in several southeastern North

Carolina newspapers listed the men who were to report as jurors, and it

included “Isaac M. Powers of Duplin County.” This is significant, because it

represents a brief window of time when Powers and other African American

men were able to participate in legal proceedings. From Reconstruction

until the Wilmington coup d’etat of 1898, African Americans in North

Carolina were engaged in civic life, before being shut out by

disenfranchisement in 1900.

Powers was also a successful farmer who raised several crops, including

strawberries that were shipped to hotels in New York City, but he and his

family regarded preaching as his first occupation. His 1936 death

certificate indicated Powers’ occupation as “minister.” The certificate

indicated that he had worked in that profession until 1934, just two years

before his death. In all, Powers preached for a total of 48 years.

In his almost five decades as a faith leader, Powers did have peers with

comparable talent and integrity. The Rev. Richard Keaton, who founded

the first Missionary Baptist Churches in southeastern North Carolina,

comes to mind. However, Powers stands apart for the way his principles

involved him in several momentous occurrences. In Powers’ life, we

witness participation in the widespread southern African American

school-building movement, the aspirations and eventual crushed hopes of

freedmen who were politically active, and finally the quiet resilience of a

man who counsels his neighbors to buy land– to build and to grow– even

after they were shut out of civic life.

The October 8, 1896 edition of The Caucasian newspaper (Clinton, NC)

carried an article that was short, but nevertheless indicative of historic

happenings in North Carolina. The paper reported that Republicans held

their convention for the Third Congressional District on September 23,

1896 in Warsaw, NC. “Mr. IM Powers of Duplin was elected secretary,” the

article stated, placing Powers at the center of one of the last 19th century

elections in which Republicans held sway. In 2008, James M. Beeby

published an article in the NC Historical Review entitled “Red Shirt

Violence, Election Fraud, and the Demise of the Populist Party in North

Carolina’s Third Congressional District, 1900” that included the following


The political landscape of North Carolina was extremely complex throughout the 1890s. Members of the Populist Party, led by reformers and grass-roots activists, had aligned themselves with Republicans and African Americans to smash the hegemony of the Democratic Party in 1894. From 1894 to 1897, North Carolina witnessed nothing short of a political revolution, as the reformers liberalized the state election laws...and elected hundreds of local, state and federal office holders. Among them were numerous black officials.

The Caucasian’s reporting on the 1896 Republican Third Congressional

District Convention quoted the resolution that the convention had adopted.

The resolution reflected a brief but important partnership, the “Fusion

effort, between Republicans and Populists. The parties had agreed to

cooperate, and the Third Congressional District was “conceded to the

Populists.” In other words, the Convention officials were directing

Republicans in the Third Congressional District to support the Populist

candidate. This helped to elect Populist John E. Fowler, who was a native

of Sampson County, which neighbors Powers’ home county of Duplin. The

Republican convention officials statement about why they had cooperated

with the Populists was prescient:

Whereas, believing that by co-operation the State will be saved from the infamous election method of MIssissippi and South Carolina that would be absolutely certain to follow Democratic success...

The reference to Mississippi and South Carolina may be obscure to

readers in the present day, but it would have been clear to readers in 1896,

who knew that Mississippi had disenfranchised African American voters in 1890, and that South Carolina had disenfranchised African American voters in 1895. Republicans and Populists alike knew that Democrats, running on

a platform of white supremacy, were actively looking for ways to neutralize

the power of North Carolina’s African American voters.

As events unfolded, disenfranchising African American voters is exactly

what Democrats did when they regained power after 1898. After intense

campaigning by Charles B. Aycock, who became Governor in 1901, a

popular vote amended the state constitution to institute literacy tests as a

qualification for voting. In practice, this measure could have

disenfranchised illiterate European American men alongside most African

American voters, so the literacy requirement was coupled with a

grandfather clause. The way the grandfather clause functioned to protect

illiterate European American voters is explained in the excerpt below from a

2006 article NC Pedia by James L. Hunt:

The large number of poor illiterate black males, as well as the bias of white Democratic registrars, ensured that the literacy test and the poll tax would be used to reduce the electorate. The drafters of the amendment were aware of the politically unacceptable fact that illiterate whites could also be excluded by the literacy test. The answer to this problem was the grandfather clause, which stated that no one should be denied the right to register and vote because of the literacy requirement if he or a lineal ancestor could vote under the law of his state of residence on 1 Jan. 1867, provided that he registered before 1 Dec. 1908. The 1867 date was important because it preceded any federal prohibition of racial discrimination; therefore very few blacks were eligible to vote. In practical terms, it meant that illiterate whites were absolved of the embarrassment of a literacy requirement and blacks were not, thus enhancing the discretionary power of Democratic registrars.

No direct expression of Powers’ thoughts on the events leading up to and

including the coup of 1898 has thus far been found. As savvy as Powers

must have been by age 48, he would have known that expressing criticism

meant risking his life. However, given Powers’ commitment to political

participation in the years leading up to 1898, he must have been deeply

dismayed. It was a particularly dangerous time for African American men to

stand up for their rights, as William McKee Evans documented in his

pioneering book Ballots & Fence Rails Reconstruction on the Lower Cape Fear. Further, the Republican Party abandoned its commitment to African

American suffrage, instead following the siren song of white supremacy.

The Wilmington Messenger was not wrong, but only premature, when it

mockingly reported in May, 1888 that “Republicanism is effectually dead in

Duplin...If there is a single white Republican in the county, he must be in the

most remote corner... Abe Middleton, Isaac Powers, Friday Hiil and Amos

McCullough, the four leading ‘darkeys’ of the county, will not be bothered with

the white brethren this year...”

After the 1898 Wilmington coup d'etat and the entrenchment of white

supremacy, Powers and other African American men saw their door to political

participation closed. However, Powers remained involved in his community.

He was still a preacher and an advocate for education. Tragically, his wife of

54 years, Caroline Tate Powers, passed away in 1927 from injuries sustained

in a car accident.

Caroline’s death left Powers living with just their son Venton Terry Powers

(known as “Vent”), who never married. Vent Powers was born in 1890, and

was a veteran of WW I. For many years, Vent ran a successful shoe and

leather repair shop in Wallace, NC.

Powers remarried in 1930. He was 80 at the time, and he married 50 year old

Jennie (sometimes spelled “Janie”) McLaurie. They remained married until

Powers’ death in 1936. Fittingly, CF Pope, the principal of the school Powers

helped to found, performed the wedding ceremony.

The narrative of James Curry, who was born in Person County, NC around

1815, provides an apt description of the resilience of Powers and others

who had been enslaved:

The slaves, altho' kept in the lowest ignorance in which it is possible to keep them, are, nevertheless, far more intelligent than they are usually represented, or than they ever appear to white people...The few faculties they are allowed to cultivate are continually exercised, and therefore greatly strengthened; for instance, that of providing comforts for themselves and those they love, by extra work, and little trade. Then they are generally brought together from distant places and communicate to each other all the knowledge they possess.

Layered onto the observational intelligence that Curry describes,

Powers also achieved literacy, business sense, and an enduring

impact on regional education. Thanks to Powers and the other

founders of the CF Pope School, many young people developed their

talents and commitment to service.

On November 14, 1915, Booker T. Washington died of congestive

heart failure. The sudden loss sent shock waves through African

American communities. Even though Washington only visited Wilmington, NC once, his influence on southeastern North Carolina

was magnified in the 15 years after his death. This was due to the

region’s active participation in the school building program Washington

established in cooperation with philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.

African American communities in New Hanover, Brunswick and

Pender Counties raised funds to build 35 Rosenwald schools between

1917 and 1932.

As one of the senior ministers at the 1915 North Carolina Colored

Baptist State Convention, which was held just three days after

Washington’s death, Powers was among those chosen to eulogize the

famous educator. In the two decades that had passed since

Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech, formerly enslaved

persons like Powers had seen their voting rights stripped away and

their freedom curtailed by the rise of Jim Crow laws.

Further, lynching had increased in North Carolina and across the

South, engendering a climate of fear for African Americans who, like

Powers, had dared to be politically active. According to an

NCpedia.org article on lynching in North Carolina:

After 1892... there was a marked increase in the number of black people killed and a marked decrease in the number of white people killed...During the same period, Jim Crow laws and other methods of disfranchisement were put in place to control black people's social and political ambitions. Over the next 15 years, lynching took more than 25 lives in North Carolina.

Given the convergence of these influences and events, it is

understandable that in his 1918 letter to the editor Powers did not

advise African Americans to cultivate relationships and rely on the

friendship of “the southern white man who is your neighbor,” as

Washington did in his Atlanta Compromise. In spite of the genuine

esteem that Powers and his peers had for Washington, they had

already seen the outcome of trusting their European American

neighbors to safeguard their rights– and it was devastating.

Family stories affirm that Powers maintained cordial relationships with

everyone, and that he became upset only one time over an incident of

overt racism. That occurred when a county register of deeds refused

to list a property Powers had purchased in his name. Yet however

cordial he was, Powers could not have been under any illusions about

the situation in SENC after 1898. Despite some genuine friendships

that did exist between African Americans and European Americans,

the events from 1898 to 1900 could not have been overlooked by an

intelligent man like Powers. His European American neighbors had

not only tolerated his disenfranchisement, but voted overwhelmingly in

favor of it.

In other aspects, however, Powers did embody principles that were

central to Washington’s philosophy. They both regarded education as

a key path to liberation. Although much has been made of

Washington’s emphasis on industrial education, it should be noted that

in North Carolina during the segregation era, all schools followed the

same liberal arts curriculum. Industrial education was never funded at

the primary level, and at the high school level much more money was

funneled to industrial education at the European American than at the

African American schools.

Further, after conducting hundreds of interviews with alumni of

Rosenwald and other historic African American schools, and based on

the work of scholars Vanessa Siddle Walker and Jarvis Givens and others, it is

very evident to this author that African American educators in North

Carolina’s segregated schools did not convey a message of

second-class citizenship to their students.

On the contrary, African American educators in North Carolina had high

expectations. They also equipped their students with speaking, writing and music

skills that proved vital for the Civil Rights generation. Those skills enabled

participants in the Civil Rights movement to assert that their humanity

was on par with that of other Americans, and that they deserved equal

rights. (The fact that predominantly European American school

boards desegregated school systems in punitive ways, abruptly

closing or downgrading cherished African American schools, is a

complex topic for another day.)

In 1901, Washington published the following reflection in his

autobiography Up from Slavery: “I have learned that success is to be

measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as

by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to


The statement rings true not only for Washington’s ascent from

enslavement to founder and president of what is now Tuskegee University, but also for Powers’ long and influential life. Powers

survived enslavement, built a foundation of generational wealth for his

family, contributed to the education of his region, and was a spiritual

leader who stood in the face of white supremacy. He was indeed a

man for all seasons.


Beeby, James M. “Red Shirt Violence, Election Fraud, and the Demise of

the Populist Party in North Carolina’s Third Congressional District, 1900.”

The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 85, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1–28.

JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23523367. Accessed 7 Jan. 2023.

Beeby, James M. Revolt of the Tar Heels: The North Carolina Populist

Movement, 1890-1901. University Press of Mississippi, 2008. JSTOR,

http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvms7. Accessed 7 Jan. 2023.

“Booker T. Washington.” Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Booker-T-Washington. Accessed 26

February 2023.

"Coup d’état". Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. Encyclopedia

Britannica, 31 Jan. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/coup-detat.

Accessed 28 December 2022.

Curry, James B. “Narrative of James Curry, A Fugitive Slave.” James Curry,

b. 1815?. Narrative of James Curry, a Fugitive Slave, UNC Chapel Hill, 19

Feb. 2004, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/curry/curry.html.

Deutsch, Stephanie. “The Legacy of Julius Rosenwald.” Philanthropy

Roundtable, 1 Mar. 2022,


Editors, Biography. “Booker T. Washington.” Biography.com, A&E Networks

Television, 23 Apr. 2021,


Eickhoff, Shannon. (2021). Anna Julia Cooper: Standing at the Intersection

of History and Hope. Educational Considerations. 47.


Evans William McKee. Ballots and Fence Rails : Reconstruction on the

Lower Cape Fear. University of Georgia Press 2004.

Hunt, James L. “Fusion of Republicans and Populists.” NCpedia, NC

Department of Natural and Cultural Resources,


Hunt, James L. “Grandfather Clause.” NCpedia, State Library of North

Carolina, 1 Jan. 2006,




“John E. Fowler.” Our Campaigns - Candidate - John E. Fowler,


NCPedia Naval Stores by Lloyd Johnson. Originally published in the

Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©

2006 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Prather, H. Leon. We Have Taken a City: The Wilmington Racial Massacre

and Coup of 1898. Dram Tree Books, 2006.

Rosenwald Database - Fisk University. http://rosenwald.fisk.edu/.

Stack, Claudia. “Booker T. Washington's Legacy in Wilmington, NC: Claudia

Stack.” NewsBreak Original, NewsBreak Original, 20 Feb. 2021,





Stack, Claudia. “Rev. Richard Keaton Lives on in SENC Churches: Claudia

Stack.” NewsBreak Original, NewsBreak Original, 24 July 2022,





“The Centennial Celebration: Illustrious History of the C. F. Pope High School

and Its Predecessor Schools.” CF Pope School Centennial Celebration Book,

Pender County Library, 26 Jan. 2023,



Umfleet, LeRae Sikes, and Valerie Ann Johnson. A Day of Blood: The 1898

Wilmington Race Riot. In Association with the North Carolina African

American Heritage Commission, 2020.

Valsame, James Mark. “Governor Charles B. Aycock, N.d., 1901-1905 -

Archives.ncdcr.gov.” Governors' Papers, North Carolina Department of

Cultural Resources, 4 Oct. 2005, https://archives.ncdcr.gov/media/291/open.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: Autobiography of Booker T.

Washington. BLN Publishing, 1901.


The Caucasian

The Wilmington Morning Star

Wilmington Dispatch

Census, birth and death records:

Ancestry.com and Findagrave

This is original content from NewsBreak’s Creator Program. Join today to publish and share your own content.

Comments / 0

Published by

I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.


More from Claudia Stack

Comments / 0