Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Powells - A Liverpool Family

An extract from Jeffrey Green’s talk  at 
What’s Happening in Black British History? II 
in Liverpool 19 February 2015

The Powells came to my attention when I read a letter from Powell in Everton, describing himself as an “outlawed American negro” in a 1974 collection of letters between British and American abolitionists. Another letter, also dated 1859, stated Powell’s son was a surgeon. I looked him up in the Medical Directory 1859 and investigated on line to discover Dr Powell had served in the Union forces in the American Civil War and that his army file showed he was alive into 1915.

William Peter Powell left America with his six brothers and sisters in 1850, travelling with his namesake father and mother Mercy Haskins. She was a native American and her husband was of African descent. “He had come to this country to procure for his children that education and means of supporting themselves denied them in Boston on account of their colour” noted Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal of 8 February 1851. Their father has been called a “militant champion of black seamen”, and had run boarding houses for sailors in New York City and in New Bedford, Massachusetts.[1] The latter was part of the Underground Rail Road – which aided escaped slaves en route to freedom in Canada.[2]In Britain Powell moved on the edges of abolitionist circles and met American refugees, assisting newly-arrived Americans. In 1853 one such, William Allen, informed America’s leading white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that on arrival in England he had spent two weeks in Liverpool “rendered more agreeable by the kindness of our mutual friend, Wm. P. Powell, Esq., formerly of New York”.[3]

 Powell attended a lecture in 1856 on “the African race” in Liverpool. Also present was “Josephine, the slave who has lately arrived here from New Orleans … accompanied by several coloured friends, and the audience loudly cheered her as an expression of their sympathy and good wishes”. Hidden for the twenty-five days of the voyage by the boatswain of the Asterion she reached Liverpool on 16 February 1856. There had been a $500 reward offered in New Orleans. She was “a mulatto” aged 20 or 23.[4] “At the close of the lecture, Mr. Powell, a coloured gentleman addressed the meeting with some humour and considerable ability”.[5] A later talk by American anti-slavery campaigner Parker Pillsbury claimed Josephine bribed a customs officer. This was investigated by the Collector of Customs at Liverpool. His refutation supported by a letter from Powell was published in the Liverpool Mercury.[6] Powell was “a coloured gentleman of much intelligence” employed by C. Bushell and Co., marine brokers of Dale Street, Liverpool. Powell had attended the investigation. His letter dated 18 March 1856 was from Field Street, in Everton.

In a letter from there dated 21 January 1859 Powell informed the white Bostonian Maria Chapman “I came to this country a poor despised outcast – outlawed American negro – driven from my native country for no ‘color of crime’ but for the ‘crime of color’”. Two months later leading Irish abolitionist Richard Webb said that Powell “is a poor man in the employment of others. His heart is excellent – his judgment very small”.[7]

Where the children went to school is unknown.  All the Powells returned to America around 1861 in time for William Peter Powell (b 1834), Edward (b 1836), Sylvester (b 1838) and Isaiah (b 1842) to serve in the Union forces in the American Civil War. Mercy was born in 1840, her invalid sister Sarah in 1845, and Samuel in 1849. The Powells took pride in their first-born son for he qualified as a doctor in Dublin. Webb was rude about him, writing in March 1859: “He has a son a surgeon, very intemperate, & one of the stupidest men I have ever met with, in whose social position his father takes great satisfaction”.[8] I have no energy to detail this cantankerous ex-Quaker Irishman.
William Peter Powell had qualified in 1857-1858 (L.M., Dublin 1857; M.R.C.S. England 1858) and worked as a house surgeon at St Anne’s District Hospital, Liverpool and on a temporary basis at the Liverpool South Hospital (according to page 667 of the Medical Directory, 1859). Dr Powell then was one of thirteen black doctors in the Union Army, working in Washington DC.

Dr Powell worked in California but was back in Liverpool in 1902 where, on 7 June he was present at 46 Prescot Street, West Derby when his 59-year-old brother Isaiah Amos Powell died from asthma. He was a cooper (barrel maker). On 12 April 1916 Dr Powell died at the Kirkdale Home in Kirkdale, West Derby aged 81. The death registration said he had died from senile decay, had been living at 1 Cotton Street, Liverpool (which was a lodging house by the docks) and had been ‘a Doctor of Medicine’. His name has not been traced in medical reference books in the 1910s. His files in Washington DC indicate he was the last surviving child.[9]

Jeffrey Green

[1] Philip S. Foner (ed.), Essays in Afro-American History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), p 88; Granville Allen Mawer, Ahab’s Trade. The Saga of South Seas Whaling (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999) reveals the cosmopolitan nature of Massachusetts-based whaling.
[2] See also Jill L. Newmark, ‘Face to Face with History’ on which used Powell Jr’s correspondence with the Federal government in the National Archives in Bethesda, Maryland. One website confused white Dr Peter Powell of Montgomery, Alabama and our subject. Foner’s plea that ‘the existence of William P. Powell [Sr] [should] be acknowledged’ (p 107) seems to have been ignored. The patriarch was traced in New York in 1873 but the man noted in San Francisco in 1879 may well be his doctor son (p 107).
[3] ‘Letters to Antislavery Workers and Agencies’, Journal of Negro History, Vol 10 No 3 (July 1925), p 471 taken from the Liberator, 22 July 1853.
[4] Liverpool Mercury, 18 February 1856; Liverpool Mercury, 20 February 1856.
[5] Liverpool Mercury, 29 February 1856.
[6] Liverpool Mercury, 19 March 1856.
[7] Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists. An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding (Edinburgh University Press, 1974), pp 437, 439. She does not detail Powell but these brief mentions triggered my research.
[8] Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists. An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding (Edinburgh University Press, 1974), p 439.
[9] My thanks to Jill Newmark.