Leading Black Atlanta Optometrist and Activist Transitions
C. Clayton Powell, Sr.
April 11, 1927 – October 23, 2020
By Hal Lamar, a former patient
The first pair of eyeglasses I ever wore was prescribed to me from the man who’s transition I now mourn.
Dr. Cleo Clayton Powell, Sr., also lovingly known as Dr. C. Clayton Powell, Sr., one of this city’s most intrepid human beings, notwithstanding his skills as a pioneering optometrist, passed away on Friday, October 23, 2020 at the ripe ol’ age of 93. He was a co-founder of the National Optometric Association and a charter member of the Development Authority of Fulton County.
I remember too well my appointments with him at his last office in what was once called the Stewart-Lakewood Shopping center on Metropolitan Parkway. We would spend about 15 minutes examining my peepers and then another hour and 10 minutes laughing and talking about the Atlanta he and I knew. I never left his office, tucked in a corner of that shopping mall not having grown a few inches with the knowledge he imparted about his profession, his upbringing, education and the city he adopted.
Unlike me, he was not an Atlanta native son but you’d think he was if you didn’t know any better. He was born in Dothan, Alabama in 1927. Through researching a few more facts about Dr. Powell, thanks to a near two-hour video recorded for the 150th anniversary Morehouse oral history project in April of 2012, I learned still more about him and was re-acquainted with some of the things he had told me (some things off the record) during our much anticipated “bull- sessions.”
He told me, for instance, about his meeting with renowned scientist and botanist Dr. George Washington Carver at the age of 11. Dothan is considered the peanut capital of the world. There was a peanut festival held in 1937 on the campus of Tuskegee. “Some of my friends and I roamed through Dr. Carver’s laboratory, and while roaming, we heard someone say how you boys?” “It was Dr. Carver.” “We got to shake his hand.”
The first school Dr. Powell attended was Highland-Dothan Colored School which was little more than a room with no special features, laboratories or libraries, “but with great teachers,” he recalled. One of them was Emory O. Jackson, who constantly talked about a school “on a little red hill.” “He was talking about Morehouse College in Atlanta.” Emory Overton Jackson (1908-1975), a tireless voting rights activist, was a founder and first president of the Alabama State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branches and editor of the Birmingham World from 1941 to 1975. A strong advocate of voter rights, voter registration, and using the vote to build and strengthen political power in the Black community, he maintained that disenfranchisement was the most “demeaning, dehumanizing and debilitating” of all the inequities Blacks suffered.
Powell recalled that he had an argument with his stepfather over ownership of some property that belonged to his mother. He was eventually was taken away from Dothan by an uncle to live in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh community. He then enrolled at Booker T. Washington High School. The straight A’s that he earned while at the Dothan school allowed him to pass to the 11th grade and his first foray into politics. Prodding by some classmates, he ran for Booker T. Washington High School student body president and won. “My campaign manager was an underclassman named Martin Luther King Jr.,” he said. While at BTW, he had also picked up a part-time job just a few blocks from the school at R. W. Shaw Optometrics which was his first exposure to the field of optometry and wound up being his life’s work. “I had thought about becoming a physician and a dentist but settled on becoming an eye doctor.” He remembered applying at several colleges of ophthalmology but got turned away because of his race. He finally got accepted at a school in Chicago. Powell returned to Morehouse in 1946 to complete his undergraduate studies, but again took some time off to help an aunt and uncle with teaching duties at the Burnt Corn Middle school in Burnt Corn, Alabama. He excelled there as a teacher and basketball coach and was even offered a principal’s job. “I was only 19 at the time,” he said, “but I told the superintendent that I had to return to Atlanta. He set up private practice here and soon rubbed shoulders with some of the city’s politically astute and high rollers in the Atlanta branch of the NAACP. He eventually became executive director of the Atlanta branch and soon found himself in a similar role with the Southside Atlanta Comprehensive Health Center. His private practice also flourished as well. “ I was the eye doctor for (Morehouse President) Benjamin Mays and his wife Sadie. I was also the optometrist for Morehouse.”
In 1954, Dr. Powell married Atlanta native and attorney Romae Turner who, in 1973, made history by becoming a juvenile court judge and the first Black female appointed judge in the state (the Romae Powell Juvenile Court Center downtown is named for her). She died in 1990 as she transitioned due to a bout with lung cancer. However, their 36-year marriage produced two children, C. Clayton Jr., an IBM retiree and current real estate salesperson, and Ms. Rometta Evelyn Powell, a practicing dentist in Fayette, Georgia. The union also brought C. Clayton and Romae their only grandchild, C. Clayton Powell-Lee, a student at Westlake High School.
In July of 1994, Dr. Powell married Quitman, Georgia native and retired Atlanta Public school teacher Deborah Powell. The couple was married 26 years.
Services in Honor of Dr. C. Clayton Powell
According to the Powell family, a public viewing and Omega service (Dr. Powell was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.) will be held on October 31, 2020 at Willie Watkins Mortuary from 4 pm to 9 pm.
The celebration of life service is scheduled for Sunday, November 1, 2020 at 1 pm at Zion Hill Baptist Church, 6175 Campbellton Road SW in Atlanta, Georgia.
COVID procedures will be practiced at both services.
The family asks in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the National Optometric Association, which Dr. Powell co-founded in 1969, and to Morehouse College.
Last updated on October 28, 2020