Monday, September 22, 2014

Wilma Powell, A Legend in Long Beach Civil Rights History

Wilma Powell was the first woman to serve as Chief Wharfinger and Director of Trade and Maritime Services at the Port of Long Beach and the first African American in the nation to old the position.
Wilma Powell
Wilma Powell

First African American U.S. Chief Wharfinger

Wilma Powell was the first woman to serve as Chief Wharfinger and Director of Trade and Maritime Services at the Port of Long Beach and the first African American in the nation to old the position.

In case you are not familiar with terminology pertaining to professional positions at America's Ports: Chief Wharfingers are at the center of all internal and external port operations. Nothing happens at a port without the Chief Wharfinger's direction, coordination and approval.

Wilma Powell was the first woman to serve as Chief Wharfinger and Director of Trade and Maritime Services at the Port of Long Beach
Wilma Powell
Chief Wharfinger was still merely a dream for a little black girl growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, not just because she was born and raised in Waco, Texas, more than 300 miles from the nearest Port of Authority in Houston on the Gulf of Mexico, but because in the 1960s when she came of career age, Wilma Powell had no black female or male role models holding high positions in that line of work. 

The only positions held in those days by African Americans were men with strong bodies able to load and unload shipments of goods and perform other manual labor associated with the port vessels docking at the Houston Ship Channel, created by dredging Houston's Buffalo Bayou and Galveston Bay, dating back ti 1836. 

Men who worked the docks were referred to as Stevedores, dockworkers, dockers, dock laborers and longshoreman, and like other Jim Crow traditions in America, maritime and waterfront work at its lowest economic level was also segregated on the basis of race. Due to residency rules, it wasn't until the 1960s that black dockers began entering the Southern California longshoremen unions. And the number of black women who gained employment opportunities and membership in these organizations grew even slower.

"I moved to California in 1967," Powell said. "Recently divorced with a small child, I came to live with my sister and her husband and started a new chapter in my life."

Wilma Powell, graduate of the University of Redlands
Wilma Powell
When Powell first entered college, many teachers in her family had steered her toward a school teaching career, which she pursued at the historic black Texas college, Prairie View A&Mwhere she completed three years toward a degree in elementary education.

"I decided I wanted to go into the field of business," she said. "So, I changed my major to business administration."

When Powell arrived in California, with a goal to enter the field of business, she enrolled at the University of Redlands. Powell, busy living her life in a quiet dignified way, was much like Rosa Parks, in that, she led the charge for change. Although not getting the national media coverage received by Rosa Parks, when Wilma Powell changed the direction of her education, graduated with a degree in business, and entered the maritime industry, her very presence changed the history of the way U.S. Ports had, heretofore, regarded diversity in employment.

Starting at the entry level at the Port of Long Beach, Powell worked her way up and remained at the Port for 36 years before retiring. 

Port of Long Beach

Port of Long Beach

"It was very unique for a woman to be in that position," Powell said. Chief Wharfinger  had traditionally been held by men, Powell said, predominantly white men. She knew she was the first woman to hold the position at the Port Long Beach, founded in 1911, but said it was a proud moment for her when she was notified that she was the first woman in the U. S. to hold the position of Chief Wharfinger and Director of Trade and Maritime Services

Want to know more about Wilma Powell and other Southern California black female civil rights pioneers like Wilma Powell?

In a study of twelve Long Beach, California, African American women who made a difference in the city's racial history in a book, BREAKING THROUGH, Lighting the Way, Sunny Nash and Carolyn Smith Watts celebrated their lives with a book of historical profiles and a documentary. The project will become an exhibition of portraits, historical photographic restorations, documents reproductions artifacts, books, and monographs next fall, opening at the Historical Society of Long Beach as a major exhibition, after which, it will travel to other locations around the state and nation.

Major Exhibition - BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way

BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way  Profiles of African American Women who made a difference to the history of Long Beach, California  Edited by Sunny Nash Foreword by Carolyn Smith Watts

Profiles of African American
Women who made a difference
to the history of Long Beach, 

Edited by Sunny Nash
Foreword by Carolyn Smith Watts
Bobbie SmithAlta Cooke, Carrie Bryant
Dale Clinton & Lillie Mae Wesley (not present) 

“These women form the foundation of the struggle for equality on so many fronts,” said Nash, editor of BREAKING THROUGH, Lighting the Way. "We all know women like Wilma Powell, Dale Clinton, Bobbie Smith, Maycie Herrington, Autrilla Scott, Evelyn Knight Vera Mulkey, Carrie Bryant, Doris Topsy-Elvord, Alta Cooke, Patricia Lofland and Lillie Mae Wesley, even in our own families. If we do not celebrate their lives and achievements, future generations will never know about them."

BREAKING THROUGH, Lighting the Way coordinator and author of the book's foreword, Carolyn Smith Watts, said, “I am blessed to have known these women and I have a wonderful relationship with many. These 12 women have contributed over six hundred years of experience to Long Beach. In the past fifty years, they have mothered hundreds children, some of whom were their own and others were neighborhood children who needed love and support. Yes, of course, there are other women in Long Beach, California, with thousands of stories and each one invaluable,"  Watts said. "There are women of this quality in every community. Other groups can use BREAKING THROUGH, Lighting the Way as a model to commemorate the contributions of women in their communities."

The Historical Society of Long Beach (HSLB), California, a repository for the city's history for nearly 50 years, is the permanent repository for artifacts contributed by the women featured in BREAKING THROUGH, Lighting the Way

Historical Society of Long Beach

Historical Society of Long Beach 

Since 1962, HSLB has collected more than 100,000 items, including documents, maps, photographs, books, scrapbooks, yearbooks, architectural pieces, advertisements, textiles, uniforms, menus, postcards, blueprints, publications, telephone and address directories, historical inventories, biographies and early memorabilia documenting Long Beach. 

“By living their lives beyond what seemed possible, these women demonstrated personal and professional survival and service to their fellow human beings, raising the level of goodness in the world,” said Nash. “The contributions of these 12 women to their community are incalculable.” 

A recurring theme in the conversations of this pioneering dozen was being prepared, meaning education, training and experience as the primary route they chose to become successful, advising the next generation of women to follow the same formula. However, all of the woman placed helping others, family and friends, above any personal ambition they may have had for themselves.
Wilma Powell was the first woman to serve as Chief Wharfinger and Director of Trade and Maritime Services at the Port of Long Beach and the first African American in the nation to old the position.
Wilma Powell
"I've worked in the community for the last twenty years," Powell said. "On a number of boards, including the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, sometimes being the only African American woman. One thing I have never wanted to be was a token anything.In a role where I was expected to participate, I really do participate."

“One of the most important lessons young people can learn from these 12 incredible women is to be dedicated to their dreams and be willing to make certain sacrifices to nurture their dreams,” Nash said. “Time is a sacrifice that must be made to become educated in the area of interest. Although nothing is guaranteed in this life, education is a necessary part of preparing for a successful future. Study, one solid method of giving a dream a fair chance to become a reality, grooms a person for the inevitable competition of those who may have the same dream.”

"I look at the world as a bouquet of flowers," said Wilma Powell. "And all these colors make this beautiful bouquet. We have to make sure that everybody is included. Inclusiveness is very important for the entire community to be successful."

Below is a video produced by Sunny Nash of the BREAKING THROUGH, Lighting the Way photo session by Carolyn Smith Watts. Also in the video are the community reception and program held at the Long Beach Public Library, which includes presentations by the next generation of pioneering Long Beach women to the original 12 women, dubbed the Pioneering Dozen by the Press TelegramA book about the next generation by Sunny Nash and Carolyn Smith Watts, is being completed..

The multifaceted signature project, BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way Exhibition, is comprised of archival portraiture, ancestral photographic restorations, artifacts, historic papers, archaic document reproductions, memorabilia, and newspaper and magazine clippings collected, organized by award-winning humanitarian Carolyn Smith Watts, and award-winning author and photojournalist Sunny Nash, on 12 African American Women who made a Difference in the Cultural History of Long Beach, California.


The Port of Long Beach demonstrated its commitment to equal employment access and professional opportunity over the years by appointing the first female Chief Wharfinger in the nation, one of the Legends of this project; and continues that commitment with its support of this project.

Sponsors, donors, partners and contributors committed to date are listed here. Others will be joining the list in the near future. All are welcome to LIKE the Legends on FaceBook.

In 2015, after Nash won a 2015 Arts Council for Long Beach Professional Artist Fellowship to design a Museum Catalogue and restore photographs, BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way became a Signature Project of photo restorations, artifacts, document reproductions, ancestral papers and online resources. 

Molina Healthcare

For more than 30 years, Molina has been providing quality, affordable health care to individuals and families covered by government programs. 


Andy Street 
Community Association

BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way Exhibition previewed at the Andy Street Community Association's Bixby Knolls EXPO Event in February. Hundreds of spectators were able to get a glimpse of the coming exhibition, scheduled to open in September. 

At the June 5th First Friday Event in Bixby Knolls, there will be an exhibit preview at the Historical Society of Long Beach featuring 230 collective years of educational accomplishments of the 12 Legends of BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way.

Tuttle Cameras Long Beach
Based on the collection of historical profiles, published in 2007, edited by Sunny Nash, and foreword by Carolyn Smith Wattswhose award-winning photograph of the Long Beach Living Legends was published in the Tuttle Cameras book, One Camera Long Beach.

Chick-fil-A Towne Center, Long Beach

John Howard of the Chick-fil-A Towne Center Long Beach was present that crisp sunny day in September at the Shoreline Village photo session when the historic picture of the Legends was taken.

International Realty & Investments

The project also includes oral history, new photo/video capture and recently discovered images and artifacts that will also be included in a series of television programs on LBTV, the Television Station owned and operated by the City of Long Beach.


City of Long Beach

Long Beach dignitaries will attend and participate in The Grand Opening. Southern California Media organizations will be invited to a Press Conference at 2:00 p.m. in the Loraine & Earl Burns Miller Special Collections Room of the Long Beach Public Library.

Long Beach Public Library, Main Branch
The Long Beach Public Library will host the event in its Atrium Center & Theater off of City Hall Public Plaza, 101 Pacific Ave., Long Beach, California. There will a VIP Reception in the Atrium Garden prior to the program and the screening of a film and online resources.


Long Beach City College
Long Beach Unified 
School District

Long Beach City College (LBCC) and Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) will play equally significant roles in as education partners in advertising the event to their respective constituents. Both have student bodies and faculty to which they will provide electronic announcements on their Internet and broadcast communication systems. Both LBCC and LBUSD can lay claim to several Legends, who either taught, served as officials or attended both LBCC and LBUSD

Los Angeles County 
Sheriff's Department
Los Angeles Sheriff's Department in collaboration with the Long Beach Unified School District will participate in a mini-exhibit and event at Jordan High School, where student government officers will also be present to participate in a seminar involving one of the Legends who was an official of the school.

This event commemorates the historical relationship between Long Beach Unified School District and Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

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~Thank You~

Breaking Through Lighting the Way

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