Life for Eastern’s first Black graduate’s descendants

Grandma and my mother as a toddler

Editor’s note: This is the third part of a series detailing the life and legacy of the Powell family of Mattoon, Illinois, as well as the life of their descendants. Zella Powell, a daughter of the prominent family, was the first Black student to attend and graduate from Eastern when it was the Eastern Illinois State Normal School. The third part of this series will focus on Zella Powell’s daughter, son-in-law and granddaughters.

From one of the only two Black families in a small, Southern Illinois town to the first Black graduate of Eastern to the Civil Rights movement, the legacy of the Powell family of Mattoon, Illinois lives on.

Zella Powell’s daughter, Louise, valued education as much as her mother.

Born in 1919 in Chicago, she was raised as an only child like her mother.

She grew up in the Chicago Public School System and continued her education at her father Albert’s alma mater, Fisk University.

As a French major, Louise want to travel to France while in college but was unable to due to World War II raging on in Europe.

Louise settled on a master’s in library sciences from the University of Michigan in place of overseas traveling and landed back in Chicago.

In Chicago, she began working in the school system she was a product of, as a Chicago Public Schools librarian.

When visiting Detroit for a library conference, a friend of Louise offered to set her up on a blind date with a young doctor named Charles Wright. The date went well according to Stephanie Wright Griggs, the daughter of Louise and Charles, who said the rest was history after her parent’s first date.

Following their 1950 nuptials, the couple brought two daughters, Dr. Carla Wright and Stephanie Wright Griggs, into the world. Their two daughters were not the couple’s only accomplishment, however.

Fifteen years after the couple was wed, Charles led 30 people in establishing the Museum of African American History in Detroit, which was later renamed the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to honor its founder. The museum is the home to the world’s largest permanent collection of African American cultural artifacts.
Beyond their dedication to the creation of the museum, the couple was active in their community.

Stephanie Wright Griggs said her mother was “the consummate volunteer of the city of Detroit,” by volunteering in hospitals, reading for the blind and her work for the museum.

Though her professional career came to an end during her marriage as her children were born and the museum was being created, Louise’s passion for libraries did not. In fact, it lives within the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in the Louise Lovett Wright Library.

Stephanie Wright Griggs said the name of the library means everything to her, knowing how passionate her mother was about libraries.

She recalled her mother’s devotion to the museum’s first collection of materials, saying “…from the very beginning when he first started talking about it, she was the one that said ‘okay, if you do this, what about this and, you know, if we if you plan to do this, what about this and very much supported the whole idea of research in the museum, which was such a strong component. That’s why they in the beginning really started asking people to donate books. And over time, they really collected a pretty good, strong collection of rare books, because they reached out to people pretty early on when you think about the whole museum movement, and started collecting valuable documents. And that’s when she then decided to start cataloging and developing a library for the museum as opposed to having a room full of books stacked somewhere.”

As her grandmother was her family’s record keeper, Stephanie Wright Griggs said she wonders what Zella would have thought of what became of the museum.
The family has a strong history of recording the things around them from Zella keeping scrapbooks on her family, Louise being an integral part of building the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and now Stephanie Wright Griggs creating a traveling exhibit on her family’s history.

Throughout the last 163 years since the Powell family started life in Mattoon, Illinois, a local man became president of the United States, a Civil War was fought, slavery was abolished, women gained the right to vote, two World Wars were fought, the Civil Rights movement advanced the rights of people of color, as well as millions of other bits and pieces of history. Though the story of the Powell family is one of the bits and pieces of history for most, their lives give perspective to how big of an impact can be made by individual people.


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