The Historian


Discover the Legacy of Zella Powell, a true visionary who shattered barriers and left an indelible mark on the history of our community. From humble beginnings to becoming a pioneer in education, Zella Powell exemplifies resilience, determination, and academic excellence.

Grandma and my mother as a toddler

Pages of memories are contained in family scrapbooks holding visual evidence of days gone by. Handed down from woman to woman in a prominent African American family, is a collection of stunning photographs documenting rarely seen life from Antebellum Midwestern America. Stephanie Wright- Griggs, a Chicago healthcare executive and daughter of  founder of the Charles H Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, has been the keeper of her family papers, artifacts and photographs dating back to the 1850s. The collection reveals a family journey that begins with her great great grandfather, John Powell Sr., one of the founders of Mattoon, Illinois (1858) who lived through the Civil War and owned a successful barbershop. Picture Perfect: Zella’s Traveling Scrapbook features his daughter Zella F. Powell Lovett and the migration of their relatives from Mattoon to Chicago and on to Detroit.

The exhibit tells the story of Zella Powell’s family through panels and family documents, such as a scrapbook, photos and letters.

The documents preserved by this family help tell an important component of Mattoon’s early years

A scrapbook compiled by Zella, the first Black graduate of Eastern Illinois State Normal School in 1910, contains a photographic collection of African Americans who led lives that are often not discussed by mainstream American media and shunned by most Black people – the successful entrepreneurs, the socially connected, the well-educated, the elite. The issue of class continues to divide African Americans, however, the experiences on either side are equally valid.

These striking photographs reveal people holding diplomas, standing in front of the homes they own and working in their family business. They had pride in their race and through their social clubs and churches they supported the less fortunate providing scholarships, food, shelter and spiritual growth. The centerpiece of the Powell family in 1870s revolved around a barbershop that catered to white and black clientele. The photographs and archival documents confirm ownership, social and civic participation and status, financial acumen as well as their unions and funerals. The signature image of Zella with her scrapbook personifies the importance of preserving family history and its role in the education of future generations.

This exhibition, meant to teach and inspire an intergenerational audience, comprises 60+ high quality photographs taken from 1870 to 2014 in the studios of numerous professional photographers in cities across the country, amateur snap shots, along with reproductions of valuable materials including a manumission paper, real estate deed, marriage certificate, news clippings and other ephemera. This glimpse into the world of a post slavery African American family embodies the richness and diversity of African American heritage while conveying the dignity and strength many Black people needed to survive the two worlds they often had to endure.

Exhibition includes 60+ high quality photographs taken from 1870 to 2014.

By 1860 African American men comprised the majority of barbers in many cities. Their success led to the accumulation of wealth making them among the most successful African American businessmen in the nineteenth century.
Anna McCann

Learn the unknown story of the African American families, the Powells and the Perrys, who were founders of the city of Mattoon, Illinois as documented by their granddaughter Zella Powell.



Museum Hours

9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00

Museum Location

2270 S Real Camino Lake California

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