Skip to main content

William Stevens Powell, the acknowledged dean of North Carolina historians, died April 10 at age 95 in Chapel Hill.

Powell was the author or editor of more than 100 books, pamphlets and articles about North Carolina and its history. As a professor at Carolina from 1973 to 1986, he taught North Carolina history to more than 6,000 students. Thousands more learned about the state through Powell’s carefully researched reference books: “The North Carolina Gazetteer,” the six-volume “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography” and the “Encyclopedia of North Carolina.”

Without Powell, would we have ever figured out that Enola in Burke County got its name from the word “alone” spelled backwards? Or that the name of Quewhiffle Creek in Hoke County is probably a mispronunciation of the Gaelic word for “smuggler”? Or how Tar Heels really got their name?

“Bill Powell’s contributions to our understanding of the history of North Carolina are truly remarkable, both in quality and quantity,” said Bob Anthony, curator of the North Carolina Collection and director of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center. ”I simply cannot imagine my North Carolina Collection colleagues and I trying to do our research and reference work without the ‘Powell trilogy.’“

For more casual history readers, Powell wrote “North Carolina: A History.” He also wrote textbooks on North Carolina history for elementary and middle school students as well as the college text “North Carolina Through Four Centuries.” His “First State University: Pictorial History of the University of North Carolina” has been through multiple editions and still remains a go-to reference for the University’s first 200 years.

As a boy growing up in Statesville, Powell shared courthouse benches with Civil War veterans, listening to their stories. That fascination with history continued the rest of his life – a fascination not so much with dates as with the people and political forces that shaped their times.

Powell graduated from Mitchell Junior College in 1938 and from Carolina in 1940, then served in the Army in World War II. After the war, Powell returned to Carolina to get a master’s degree in history and a bachelor’s degree in library science. He became a researcher for the North Carolina Department of Archives and History then served as the librarian of the North Carolina Collection from 1951 to 1973. He then taught history at the University from 1973 to 1986, writing volume upon volume of history about his home state well into his retirement.

“I got my most thorough introduction to North Carolina history when I worked as a graduate student intern on the ‘Encyclopedia of North Carolina History,’” said Cecelia Moore, University historian. “Even at 83, Mr. Powell was highly capable with a computer and email. I quickly came to value his knowledge, his energy and his ability to negotiate the backstage spaces and stairwells of Davis Library.”

Over the years, Powell received many honorary degrees and other accolades. In 2000, he received the North Carolina Award for Literature and in 2008 he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

“Countless Tar Heels learned about the place they call home through his talks to alumni clubs, local history organizations and professional organizations,” Anthony said. “There wasn’t a corner of the state he would not travel to if invited to lecture. The resources he produced during his 70-plus years as a ‘professional North Carolinian’ will continue to be much consulted and appreciated in the years to come.“

Powell is survived by his wife and fellow researcher of 63 years, Virginia. He is also survived by his three children John Powell of Raleigh, Charles Powell of Concord and Ellen Feild of Lynchburg, Virginia, 11 grandchildren and one great grandson.

A private memorial service will be held at a later time. Memorial contributions may be sent to the William S. Powell Fund at North Caroliniana Society, c/o Wilson Library, Campus Box 3930, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-8890 or to Duke Homecare and Hospice at 4321 Medical Park Dr. #101, Durham, NC 27704.

By Susan Hudson, University Gazette

Published April 16, 2015