William S. Powell, Editor

 

Bill Powell is widely considered the "dean" of North Carolina historians. Born in 1919 in Johnston County and raised in Statesville, Powell attended Mitchell College for two years before transferring to the University of North Carolina. He graduated in 1940, entered the U.S. Army, and served in the military intelligence branch in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He returned to Chapel Hill after the war to earn degrees in history and library science. After one year as a librarian at Yale University, in 1948 he became a full-time research historian at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.

In 1952, Powell became assistant librarian at the North Carolina Collection at UNC, and in 1958, he was promoted to curator. In that capacity he helped build what is now regarded as the premier research collection on state history. In 1973, he became a professor of history at the university, teaching more than 6,000 students before his retirement in 1986. Many of his students and protégés have gone on to hold significant positions at the state's libraries, archives, colleges, and universities.

Powell has volunteered his service on nearly every important historical board or association in the state, including the North Carolina Historical Commission, the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association, the America's 400th Anniversary Committee, the editorial board of the North Carolina Historical Review, and the Historical Society of North Carolina.

While he has written or edited numerous volumes of state and local history, Powell's most important contributions are reference works that have long been regarded as foundations for North Carolina history and as models for similar works in other states. The North Carolina Gazetteer (1968) is a geographical dictionary that lists the names, founding date, and a snippet of history on every notable place in the state. The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1979-1996) spans six volumes and contains almost 4,000 biographies of people who made significant contributions to North Carolina history. Over the course of many years, Powell collected and edited entries from volunteers, as well as writing hundreds of entries himself. His North Carolina Through Four Centuries (1989) remains a standard college textbook. The scope and quantity of his writings are unmatched and include documentary volumes on the Regulators and William Tryon, an illustrated history of UNC, a biography of John Pory, and a history of Caswell County. The library catalog at UNC-Chapel Hill lists some 112 books and articles by Powell. For his accomplishments, he was honored with the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2000.

Powell celebrates his 87th birthday this year. He lives with his wife and research partner, Virginia, in Chapel Hill.