“Keep the Faith, baby!”
(The following article is reprinted from The Vineyard Gazette)
The Powell Cottage, known as “The Bunny Cottage”, was owned by Adam Clayton Powell, the first African American congressman from the east coast since Reconstruction, and also a Reverend at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He was a highly influential leader of the Democratic majority during the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s and 1970’s. This home was left to his wife, Isabel W. Powell, following their divorce in 1945.
The History Project will dedicate the seventeenth site of the Trail on August 24th when a plaque will be unveiled at the Powell house on Dorothy West Avenue in the historic Highlands area of Oak Bluffs. The plaque is to honor the lives of Isabell Washington Powell and the late Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Ms. Powell was a dancer during the 1920’s at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem and when she met the famous and fascinating future Congressman, she was starring in a broadway play: “Harlem.” Following her marriage, she gave up her show career, and became a supportive wife to Clayton Powell, Jr., who was then a charismatic junior minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Actively involved in the Harlem Renaissance, Ms. Powell was described by her husband in his autobiography as “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” Their marriage in 1933, held at the Abyssinian church, attracted a crowd of thousands who hoped to shake hands with the golden couple.
In 1937, they bought the house in Oak Bluffs known to them as the “Bunny Cottage,” and lived there together until 1945 when they divorced. Isabel Powell continued to spend all of her summers on the Vineyard in the “Bunny Cottage” where she and Adam had entertained the ambitious and gifted of their generation. Matthew Henson, the African American explorer who succeeded in reaching the North Pole in 1909, was a guest in this house. Ms. Powell began a teaching career as a special education teacher in the New York public schools in the years after World War II, and served as a much loved and honored teacher for over thirty years. Though now of advanced years, Ms. Powell still entertains and serves her chosen guests with amazing “bloody marys” for which she is justly famous. Dorothy Taylor recalls Isabel Powell as a very beautiful woman who “always looked very dramatic. She wore wide, swirly skirts and sandals. She was spectacular.”
“Unless man is committed to the belief that all mankind are his brothers, then he labors in vain and hypocritically in the vineyards of equality.”
– Adam Clayton Powell Jr., ‘Black Power: A Form of Godly Power’ 1967
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s career as a Congressman for the Harlem district of New York began in 1945 though his career as an advocate for racial justice had begun years before when he preached at the Abyssinian Baptist church, and became involved with protesting issues of class and racial inequities. Lincoln Pope III, remembers that in the 1960’s many young African Americans felt that there was no point in people of color trying to join the political institutions. He told the Congressman that a revolution was necessary. Clayton Powell’s response was to dismiss that notion: “you can burn down the buildings and refuse to join the institutions, but they will just build new ones and you will be left outside powerless. Join… and make changes from the inside.” Making changes from the inside seems to have been a successful strategy for Mr. Powell. He was responsible for the “Powell amendment” that forbids any racial discrimination in any federally funded project. This piece of legislation was probably the most effective weapon against segregation and unequal opportunity within the workplace. During the years of the Kennedy and Johnson administration, Clayton Powell, as Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee was responsible for the passing of an impressive series of civil rights laws that helped to shape the world in which we live today.
Though Congressman Powell was a very effective politician and campaigner for civil rights, his political career was shadowed by controversy. At the time of his death in 1972, he had successfully challenged his dismissal from Congress. Throughout his life, he continued to be the pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church where his charismatic preaching interspersed with civil rights advocacy attracted congregations of thousands. The late Elizabeth White reflecting on his life noted that “Adam looked white, but he always thought black.”
Adam Clayton Powell’s charismatic personality is remembered by Heather Rynd who recalls his teaching her some prayers when she was five or six years old. Congressman Clayton Powell was a friend of her mother, Valerie Lethridge Rynd, and he is recalled as a very handsome man with great charm who took an interest in everyone.
Congressman Clayton Powell loved the Vineyard and was an avid fisherman. The fishing poles that he used are still on display in the cottage that he shared with Isabel. Toward the end of his career, the Congressman was fond of reciting his legislative record and always ended with the observation “I love America.” The sense of possibility that exists in the U. S. fascinated him and motivated him to struggle for change and justice throughout his life. To all those he loved and esteemed, Adam Clayton Powell said: “Keep the Faith, baby.” It is that faith in the possibility of successfully struggling for justice that the Heritage Trail History Project honors as a very significant site on the Trail.