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Colin Powell Passes at 84, Carved Path as First Black U.S. Secretary of State

By Dorothy Crouch


On Oct. 18, Colin Powell, the first Black United States secretary of state and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passed away at Walter Reed National Medical Center at the age of 84. In addition to his groundbreaking role as secretary of state, Powell was also a husband, father, and grandfather. He passed away due to complications from COVID-19.

“[Today] is a sad day for us here at State, especially for all those who worked for and with Secretary Powell, and we’ll never forget the experience,” said Anthony J. Blinken, the current U.S. secretary of state in a statement. “Our thoughts are with Alma Powell and the entire family today, to everyone who loved him.”


Powell was born in New York City’s Harlem on April 5, 1937, to immigrants from Jamaica. He was raised in the South Bronx. While attending the City College of New York, Powell joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps—or ROTC—thereby beginning his 35-year military career. He graduated from the school in 1958 with a B.S. in geology. According to a biography on the school’s website, this graduation was the culmination of Powell’s academic career that completely comprised an education in New York City public schools. Andrew Rich, the Richard J. Henley and Susan L. Davis Dean of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, shared a statement regarding Powell’s passing.


“General Powell will be remembered as a man of extraordinary accomplishment: a trailblazer, a role model, and an inspiration. And he was a proud son of City College, a person from humble origins who never forgot where he started,” Rich said. “He went on to greatness, but he never left this College behind.”


In 1997, at the City College of New York, the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies was founded, and the college established the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership in 2013. The initial program cultivated the interests of outstanding students as they navigated paths toward public-service careers. Once the school was established, students were afforded the option of social-science degree programs that led them through an education in public service, community, and leadership.


“General Powell never missed a Colin Powell School graduation, and he took the time to shake the hand of every student earning a degree. It’s hard to imagine graduation without him. But this school remains his, and every graduate of the Colin Powell School is a part of his legacy. He was proud of this place, and we are even prouder to have had him as our leader,” Rich revealed. “The Colin Powell School reflects his vision, his passion, and his never-ending belief in the essential nature of this place. General Powell committed himself to every student who walked through our doors. He loved this place, and loved meeting every one of them. He would show up early to meetings on campus so that he could stand in front of Shepard Hall and meet students as they walked by. He’d hear their stories and tell them his own. He would encourage them to work hard and pursue their dreams. He always reminded them—and all of us—that ‘they’re just like I was’ some 65 years ago now.”


Powell served in the army with two tours in Vietnam. Eventually, he was stationed in West Germany and South Korea. He rose to the rank of four-star general. In 1987, under President Ronald Reagan, Powell assumed the role of deputy national security advisor and national security advisor from 1988-1989. Upon George H.W. Bush taking office, Powell was appointed as the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in 1989, leading him to serve in the role during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Though he retired in 1993, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was appointed to the position by George W. Bush on Dec. 16, 2000. Powell, the country’s 65th secretary of state, was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate.


In addition to his military career and political appointments, Powell was the founding chairman of America’s Promise, which was formed in 1997. The organization is guided by the five promises agreed upon through the America’s Promise Alliance that grew out of the 1997 Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future. These include that every young person should be surrounded by caring adults, have access to safe places, afforded opportunities to serve the community, receive an effective education, and be given a healthy start. Powell’s wife, Alma, is currently chair of the organization.


Powell was also a member of the board of directors on the Council on Foreign Relations and the Executive Leadership Cabinet of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. In addition, he was the honorary chairman of the Education Center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He also sat on the board of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Powell had lived in McLean, Va., with his wife, Alma, by whom he is survived. He is also survived by three children and four grandchildren.

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