Isaac Murray Powers: A man for all seasons

Claudia Stack
18 min readSep 24, 2023
Grady Fennell holds a portrait of his great-grandfather, I.M. Powers, picture by Claudia 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, along with his letter to the editor, may seem like small occurrences. However, 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 continued:

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 beginning with 1870, but thus far it has not been possible to place his father with certainty. There were three European American men named Thomas Allen who resided in New Hanover County around the time of Powers’ birth. Of course, his father might have been African American, or a different Thomas Allen 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 known then 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 School.

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 observation:

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 in 1900 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 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. Nathan Carter Newbold, the Director of the Division of Negro Education in North Carolina from 1913–1950, set that standard for all NC schools. Industrial education was never funded in North Carolina at the primary level. At the high school level, much more money was funneled to industrial education from the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 to European American than to 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, it is very evident to this author that African American educators in North Carolina’s segregated schools in no way conveyed 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 succeed.”

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.


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The Caucasian

The Wilmington Morning Star

Wilmington Dispatch

Census, birth and death records: and Findagrave