Lynda Powell, of Ben Lomond, grew up in the Deep South in the 1950s and ’60s and witnessed the many horrors of segregation. Her interest in racial equality began at a young age when she saw how black people in the county were treated as second-class citizens.
Powell was born on July 24, 1948, in Poplarville, Miss. — a rural town between Hattiesburg and New Orleans. She was the middle child of Charles and Ione Stewart, who were both educators.
By the time she entered public school at age 5, her father had become principal of the only elementary school in town.
“My father was always principal, no matter what school I attended. It was very difficult for me,” Powell said. “He was such a strict disciplinarian, and the kids didn’t like him. I felt great pressure to be perfect and worked much harder than others so I wouldn’t be accused of being favored.”
When Powell was 14, she got a job in a dental office. It had a separate room and entrance in the back for the blacks. Not only were the accommodations and equipment inferior, but the black patients weren’t even given Novocain for extractions.
“It was so cruel and unfair,” Powell said. “Elouise, our black nanny, was part of the family. I can still remember her cleaning house and ironing, even though she only had fingers on one hand.”
The other fingers, Powell said, had been chopped off with an ax.
“(Elouise’s) gentleness balanced out my father’s stern hand. It always made me sad to take her home and see the extreme poverty. I often felt like I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
This was during the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.
When the state ordered schools to integrate, both whites and blacks were very upset, Powell recalls. As a school administrator, her father was subjected to various forms of intimidation. One night, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on the family front lawn.
Powell, then 11, vividly recalls the day Charles Mack Parker, a black man, was accused of raping a pregnant white woman and was lynched in her town without being given a fair trial.
Powell was 12 when she took her first trip out of Mississippi. While visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, she saw tolerance among different cultures and realized there was a better place to live. From that day on, she dreamed of moving to this area.
In high school, Powell was driven to succeed. She earned straight A’s, was involved in many extracurricular activities and graduated as valedictorian in 1966.
Powell then attended Pearl River Junior College, where she was also valedictorian, followed by the University of Southern Mississippi, where she majored in biology and excelled.
“After graduation, I moved to New Orleans, where I taught high school biology,” Powell said. “My dad was now superintendent and having a tough time trying to integrate the schools. It was like a war zone. I needed a change.”
The change came in an unexpected way.
Powell and her roommates decided to apply as flight attendants with United Airlines. She had never flown before and had no idea what the job involved. It turned out she was the only one hired.
Two years later, Powell met Dr. Bill Armstrong, a dentist from the Bay Area. They were married in 1973 and settled down in Portola Valley, where they had two sons, John and Brad. In 1980, the marriage ended in divorce, and Powell moved to Ben Lomond with her sons.
“This was a very hard time for me,” said Powell. “The devastating winter storms of 1982 hit, bringing mudslides and severe windstorms. Being a single, working mom was difficult enough.”
Then, in 1983, she ran into Joe Powell, her high school sweetheart. They married and had a son, Morgan. She flew at night and on weekends so she could spend time helping with the boys’ activities.
Although Powell has held managerial positions at San Francisco International Airport over the past 42 years, she still prefers to fly.
“I fly one international trip a week and love to interact with so many different people,” Powell said. “I feel blessed every day I get to visit a new country. I also watch my three granddaughters and volunteer at church. I look forward to whatever God has in store for me in the future.”
- Sandi Olson of Scotts Valley is a writer, speaker and teacher. She writes about interesting people in Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley. Email her at email@example.com.