Alma J. Powell – wife of retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell, former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – has had a longtime affection and appreciation for Kentucky State University.
More than 2,000 attending KSU’s graduation found that out quickly Saturday morning in the Frankfort Convention Center.
Alma Powell, speaker at the 121st commencement for more than 300 students, said, “This is a very meaningful moment for me because without Kentucky State University I would not be who I am.”
She said she recently browsed through the KSU website and “read the list of very distinguished alumni.
“I want you to add to that list Mildred Eliza Bell Johnson, my mother.”
A surprised crowd applauded.
“She was a member of the class of June 7, 1926,” said Powell, who held a little graduation book that had been a gift to her mother.
“It’s a book filled with memories of her days as a student and if you read it, it would really bring a smile to your face.”
After graduation her mother moved to Birmingham, Ala., with her mother and siblings.
“She already had relatives there teaching in the new public school system for colored people,” Powell said. “That’s what we were known as then.
“She met and married my father, a young teacher, and began to raise a family. She looked for ways she could use her education and still be with her children and take care of them.”
Her mother opened the first licensed children’s daycare in Alabama, she said.
“Black people have always gone to work and they needed someone to take care of their children,” Powell said.
“Her nursery school was a wonderful nurturing place for the children who came to her. It was filled with music, art, nutritional meals and a safe, happy place for children to spend their days being prepared for the days when they would step out and go to public school.”
Later her mother organized the “first Girl Scout troop for Negro girls,” which met at her daycare center after school.
“This brought her to the attention of the Girl Scout organization and she was hired to organize Girl Scout troops across the county.”
She said her mother also was “very active in church affairs,” and became the first woman and African American elected to a top leadership position in the United Church of Christ.
Powell mentioned several other accomplishments by her mother, “and it all began right here. Thank you for your contribution.”
Powell said she came from a family of educators. Her ancestors “recognized that education is how we make a way for ourselves,” she said.
A grandfather was born a slave in Kentucky and was about 6 “when emancipation came,” she said. “My grandmother was born the following year.”
Both of them went to Berea College. After her grandfather’s graduation in 1888, he went to Middlesboro and “founded the first public school for black people in the state. Education was our great emancipator.
“Education opened the pathway for future generations of our family.”
From the beginning, Kentucky State’s purpose was to train African American teachers, “who help provide a way forward for the larger community,” Powell said.
To the 2010 graduates, “whatever profession you pursue, I challenge you to carry on the spirit of that founding mission.”
She praised the graduates for their community involvement while they were in Frankfort and encouraged them to continue public service.
A higher education is “not only about your advancement,” she said. “It’s about the betterment of the greater community. I hope you will do service not as a resumé-builder but as a launching pad, a prelude to the next chapter of your life.”
Powell said KSU is like “a loving mother. This school has nurtured you and prepared you.
“It prepared my mother over 80 years ago and what she gained here helped her nurture and prepare me. And now it is your turn to pass on this marvelous legacy of Kentucky State.”
Powell received an honorary degree from KSU at Saturday’s ceremony.
A graduate of Fisk University in Nashville and Emerson College in Boston, Powell began her professional career as a staff audiologist for the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing.
In Boston, she met Colin Powell and they married in 1962.
While he was stationed at the Pentagon, Alma Powell began working as the Army liaison to the National Red Cross as part of a team of volunteer consultants from the military service.
She then became adviser to the Red Cross of the Military District of Washington when Gen. Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While Gen. Powell was secretary of state in the first term of President George W. Bush’s administration, Alma Powell served as the honorary president of the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide, sat on the advisory board of the Hospitality and Information Service, and was an honorary member of the Department of State Fine Arts Committee.
She also chaired the National Council of the Best Friends Foundation from 1989 to 2000.
She wrote two children’s books, “My Little Wagon” and “America’s Promise,” in 2003.
Now she chairs the board of America’s Promise Alliance and the advisory board for the Pew Center for Civic Change.
She serves on the YouthBuild USA advisory board and sits on the boards of several educational, cultural, charitable and civic organizations.
Lexington’s Derek Lindsey, a 2010 honors graduate and political science major, said it was an honor having Alma Powell speak at commencement.
A labor leader for the U.S. Postal Service, Lindsey said his college education has been a long journey. He earned an associate degree years ago and has been working on his bachelor’s at KSU since 2000.