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Powell, Colin (1937- )

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Colin Powell is a retired Four-Star United States Army General who was the first African American to serve as National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff and Secretary of State.

Colin Powell was born in 1937 in the Bronx, New York to Jamaican immigrant parents.  He attended public schools in the Hunts Point area of South Bronx and was eventually accepted to New York University.  Lacking the funds to attend this private university, Powell instead enrolled at the City University of New York, where he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), graduating with a degree in geology and as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. Taking his first post abroad in West Germany, Powell soon realized that the advanced racial integration of the armed forces would yield tremendous upward opportunities and he decided to make a career in the Army.

Powell would serve two tours of duty in Vietnam and receive 11 medals for exemplary service.  In 1971 he took advantage of the Army’s college funding programs, earning a Masters Degree from George Washington University.  While at George Washington University he received a coveted White House fellowship. In 1972 Powell was appointed Battalion Commander of the elite 101st Airborne in South Korea.  By 1979 he was a Brigadier General and was Deputy Commander at Fort Leavenworth.  Between 1983 and 1986, Powell, now a Three-Star General, commanded the Fifth Corps, U.S. Army, in Frankfurt, Germany.

In 1987 at the age of 49, General Colin Powell was named National Security Advisor in the Ronald Reagan administration.  While serving in this capacity Powell became the first African American promoted to Four-Star General.  In 1989 newly elected President George H.W. Bush appointed Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  During his tenure Powell oversaw U.S. military actions in Panama, the Philippines and Operation Desert Storm.  Powell was both the youngest person, and once again first African American, to hold this position.  He served under both the Bush and Clinton Administrations until his retirement in 1993 from military service after 35 years.  

Because of his immense popularity many assumed Powell would enter politics after retirement, but he instead devoted his time to family, writing, and public speaking.  He ultimately returned to the White House in 2001 as the newly appointed Secretary of State by President George W. Bush, once again as the first African American to hold the post.

Colin Powell resigned as Secretary of State in 2005.  Despite numerous requests from both parties to join the political circles and run for political office Powell has chosen to remain in private life.  He now focuses his attention in several areas of the private sector including serving on the Board of Trustees at Howard University, the Board of Directors of the United Negro College Fund, the Board of Directors of the Boys and Girls Club, and as Chairman of the Eisenhower Fellowship Program. 

Sources:
Karen DeYoung, Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell (Knopf, New York, NY 2006);  Jim Haskins, The Black Stars: African American Military Heroes (John Wiley and Sons Inc., New York, NY 1998);  Colin Powell, My American Journey (Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1995);  Kai Wright, Soldiers of Freedom (New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2002).

Contributor:

University of Washington

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