The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is proud to present the next page of Our American History, an online series for museum supporters. We offer these stories to honor and celebrate the African American experience, share an immensely rich history and culture, and inspire and support our community as we move into the future together, according to a press release. Release.
General Colin Luther Powell, our nation’s first African-American Secretary of State, was a revered military hero, four-star general, decorated veteran, and statesman. His accomplishments over his decades of military and civilian service, including being the recipient of the Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Congressional Gold Medal and two Presidential Medals of Freedom, among others, serve as a powerful testament and symbol of the fulfillment of the American promise.
It’s the quintessential American story, characterized by resilience, determination and a deep love of country. In forging his own path to success, Powell also shattered glass ceilings and paved the way for others in public service.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell was born in Harlem, NY, in 1937 and grew up to value hard work and determination above all else. He grew up in the New York public school system and attended the City College of New York, where he majored in geology and explored the possibilities of a military career by joining the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) .
“…I saw those cadets in uniform, and I wasn’t very good at civil engineering…I was drawn to it. I liked the structure, I liked the discipline, I liked being with a group of young people who were like me with this same inclination towards military activity. And frankly, at City College and ROTC, I found another family. I was leaving my family in the Bronx now back with a different type of family, and I fell in love with it. I was a straight A student at ROTC.
— General Colin Powell
After graduating in 1958, Powell was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Over the next decade, Powell completed basic infantry, ranger, and airborne officer schools. He served as a platoon leader and commanded a company of the Fifth Infantry Division before being promoted to captain in 1962. In December 1962, Powell was posted to Vietnam as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion. There he was injured and awarded a Purple Heart.
Returning home in November 1963, Powell completed the Advanced Infantry Officer Course and was promoted to Major in 1966. In 1968 Powell returned to Vietnam. He was decorated with the Soldier’s Medal for bravery after surviving a helicopter crash and, while injured, he single-handedly saved three other people.
After his military service in Vietnam, Powell pursued a master’s degree in business administration from the george washington University of Washington, D.C. During this time, he accepted his first of many political posts, serving as a member of the White House under President Nixon.
Powell has served in both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. He joined the Carter administration in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, eventually serving as the senior military assistant to the Deputy Secretary in the late 1970s. Reagan administration, he served in the Pentagon as a senior military aide to the then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberg.
In 1986, Powell was appointed deputy national security adviser. Three years later, in 1989, he became a four-star general and was appointed by the president George H. W. Bush as the twelfth chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, and the president’s principal military adviser. He was the first African-American president and the first president to earn his commission through ROTC. Powell remained in this position for the first few months of the clinton administration before retiring from the military in 1993.
He was appointed Secretary of State by the President George W. Bush in 2001, becoming the first African American to hold that position. Powell’s tenure was marked by the September 11 terrorist attacks and the start of the second Gulf War. He remained politically active after his retirement in 2005, notably endorsing barack obama for the presidency in 2008.
Colin Powell’s story is marked by youthful initiative and outstanding public service to the military, the American people, and the country as a whole. He received bipartisan support throughout his public career and embodied the determination, patriotism and democratic values that are emblematic of our nation and, in doing so, cemented his legacy as an American hero.
Powell, who joined the Museum’s Advisory Board in 2010, has also been one of the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s strongest supporters. He and his wife, Alma Powell, are founding donors who have provided generous personal support to both the Museum’s capital campaign and the Living History Campaign Today to secure the future of the Museum. Powell has also agreed to be one of the Honorary Chairs of the Living History Campaign.
“[The National Museum of African American History and Culture] fills a gap that existed in American history for so many years…and now it’s here and it’s beautiful, it’s magnificent, and it’s unlike anything on the Mall…and I think the American people will love coming here and completing this part of our wonderful history of this great country.
— General Colin Powell
Powell was an invaluable member of our community. His determination, patriotism and character inspired many, from those he led in the military to those he served in government. Powell created his legacy by “achieving every day” and in doing so, left an immense impact on our nation’s history that will live on for generations to come.