The school, equipped with science labs, overwhelmed him. “When he saw that school, it blew his mind,” said Deborah Powell.
Clayton Powell quickly emerged there as a leader. He excelled in academics and relocated the school’s 1943 prom to what had been a whites-only venue, according to Don Winbush, who co-authored the 2019 book, “C. Clayton Powell and the Real Atlanta: A Memoir and a Tribute to Those Who Made It Happen.”
Awarded a scholarship to Morehouse College, Clayton Powell was classmates with Martin Luther King Jr. After graduating in 1949, he decided to become an optometrist, a field virtually devoid of minorities. He entered the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago as the only Black student in his class, according to the NOA.
Returning to Atlanta to begin his practice in 1953, Clayton Powell became the first Black doctor of optometry to join the Georgia Optometric Association, to head the Atlanta Southside Comprehensive Health Center, and the first appointed to the National Eye Institute, according to the NOA.
Discouraged that Black optometrists could not vote or be on committees in national optometry associations, Clayton Powell and colleague John Howlette founded the NOA in 1969 to be the voice of minority optometrists. Both men were inducted into the National Optometry Hall of Fame in 2001. Clayton Powell personally mentored hundreds of students and practitioners, Deborah Powell said. Since its creation, the NOA has funded nearly $25 million in scholarships for minority students pursuing optometry, its website states.
“Our profession has lost an icon and legend,” NOA President Sherrol A. Reynolds wrote in a statement. “The NOA has strengthened our profession, created new of opportunities and promoted minority ocular health in underserved communities. Dr. Powell’s dedication to our profession is unparalleled and he will be deeply missed, but his legacy will continue forever.”
Clayton Powell did not wait to become active in politics and social issues. He was 27 when elected vice-president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP. Alongside future Justice Thurgood Marshall, he filed cases to desegregate Atlanta public schools. He was a charter member, chairman, and executive director of the Development Authority of Fulton County, where he is credited for helping bring $3 billion of development and more than 350,000 jobs to the county.
“Clayton Powell was always one to elevate others and move things forward,” Winbush said. “He stood for good things and he made good things happen.”
Clayton Powell was preceded in death by his his first wife, the Fulton County judge Romae Turner Powell. Survivors include his wife Deborah Powell of Atlanta; son C. Clayton Powell Jr. of Sandy Springs, Ga.; daughter Rometta E. Powell of Atlanta; step-daughter Camille G. Stephens of College Park, Ga.; and four grandchildren.
Memorials may be made to the National Optometric Association or Morehouse College.