Pariah to Professor
By: Lily Dale
“Excuse me sir, but you’re going to have to leave.”
The words of the police officer standing behind him struck feelings of fear and confusion in William Powell. It’s a chilly day on Auburn University’s campus in March 1984, and Powell, a future doctorate recipient and professor in Auburn’s music department, was visiting for the first time. This visit, however, was cut short by the officer who was asked to escort him off of the
Powell was in his final semester of his undergraduate studies at Alabama State University. While both schools had dismissed students for spring break, Powell decided to visit with a friend who worked in Auburn University’s photographic services department. He had not
been to Auburn University before, but in his hometown of Americus, Georgia, he had certainly heard things of the school.
“Well… from where I grew up and what I knew, Auburn had a little bit of a reputation. People would say ‘Auburn? Oh, that’s a white school.”
Powell had been spending his spring break preparing for an upcoming piano competition. Rather than growing restless in an unfamiliar apartment while his friend was at work, Powell decided to check out the practice rooms in the music building to see if they would allow him to use one. With his boombox in hand, his beard fully grown out, and a skull cap beanie pulled over his head, Powell knew how the two Caucasian employees in Goodwin Hall may have perceived his appearance.
“I was looking hood…” Powell said, with his present-day shaved face and a patterned tie around his neck. “At least, that’s how someone might have described me. But I walked into that music office and I asked, as articulately as I possibly could, ‘May I please use your practice
room?’” The employees, a man and a woman, looked at him and agreed, seemingly without hesitation.
Powell quickly proceeded to the practice rooms, all of which were empty except his own. He began by practicing some four-octave scales to warm himself up, but before he could even get through the first bit of his Mozart concerto, he was interrupted by a firm knock at the door. It was a police officer who had been called in to escort him off of the campus. In his confusion, Powell explained that he’d been given permission to be in the practice room, but the officer just shook his head.
“I’m sorry, I got a call,” the officer said. “You’re going to have to leave.”
“He was as apologetic as he possibly could have been,” Powell said of the officer. “I could see the compassion in his face and his eyes. He was white, but he was just doing his job.”
His first time visiting Auburn University ended in his removal from the campus by a police officer. A defeated and angry Powell returned to the apartment of his friend who shared his same upset over the incident. Powell wished that he could confront those employees. He
wished that he could prove to them that he meant no trouble. He knew however, that he didn’t have any power to do so.
His first experience at Auburn remained with him for the years to come. In 2001, when Powell and his wife Rosephanye applied for open teaching positions in the music department at Auburn, he was forced to evaluate if he could work for the same department that called the cops on him nearly two decades earlier. The Powells ultimately decided that Auburn University was the right fit for them. Powell began his career at Auburn in an assistant position and now serves as director of choral activities, as well as being a tenured professor and beloved figure in the music department.
In Ida B. Wells’ The Red Record, which accounts the true history of African American lynching in the United States, Wells brings up a point about the favor of white people in judicial
“The entire system of the judiciary of this country is in the hands of white people. To this add the fact of the inherent prejudice against colored people, and it will be clearly seen that a white jury is certain to find a Negro prisoner guilty if there is the least evidence to warrant such a finding.” Although African American is the preferred descriptor, Wells’ use of the term “Negro” reflects the time at which The Red Record was written in 1895.
His progression at Auburn University has brought him into a high-power position, however Powell says there are still some instances where he feels that the color of skin affects big decisions that are being made.
“I know that everyone comes at their own situations from a particular vantage point or a particular bias, no matter how you look at it. I know that the cards are not always going to be stacked in my favor, no matter what my reputation is, and the same is true for my wife,” Powell said of his time at Auburn. “Am I going to be the one who will be believed, or will it be this other person or group of people who are not African American? I have had experiences here where all of the evidence is supporting what I’m suggesting, however the final decisions being made seem to favor someone who isn’t like me.”
Despite these negative experiences throughout his career, Powell doesn’t believe in assigning blame to an entire race of people.
“I grew up in a time where I’d hear from my parents and even in church, ‘white people are bad.’ But at that same time, a lot of my friends were white, so I sort of had to come to my own conclusions about people and how to perceive them,” Powell said. “My daughters are having their own experiences with race prejudice and all that, but I want them to work through the problems in their own perspective and come to their conclusions about people on their own.”
In reflecting upon his first experience at Auburn to his current position, Powell says that he feels compelled to support and push the students who remind him of himself.
“I feel a sense of responsibility, because when I see my people not living up to their potential and not doing what they’re supposed to do, I try and do what I can to push them and inspire them,” Powell says. “The irony of it all is that I’ve now got one of the biggest offices in
the very same building that I was thrown out of 36 years ago.”