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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 30

Iredell Library Honors William S. Powell

Posted on December 30, 2019 at 3:36 PM by Jenny Levins

Visitors from out of county often comment on what a good collection of research materials we have in the Local History Department at the Iredell County Public Library. Iredell County has been fortunate to have had historians throughout much of its history who have worked to discover, preserve, and share Iredell County and North Carolina history. Through their preservation efforts and writings, we now have an excellent collection of historical records to tell the story of our past.


One of the most noted historians this county has produced is William S. Powell, who is known as the “Dean of North Carolina Historians.” He has been a librarian, historian, researcher, teacher, and author during a career that has seen both he and his works become institutions in North Carolina.  On Sunday, June 10, at 3:00 p.m. Mr. Powell will appear at the Iredell County Public Library to promote his latest work and to be honored locally for his lifetime of work.


His most recent work is the “Encyclopedia of North Carolina” which contains more than 2,000 entries and 1,360 pages presenting the entire history of North Carolina. William Friday, the former president of the University of North Carolina said the book “is the culmination of the splendid scholarly career of William Powell, our state’s preeminent historian.”  The University of North Carolina library catalog lists some 112 books and articles by Powell.


The program here at the library will feature many local historians such as O.C. Stonestreet, Lynne Lepley, and Bill Moose who contributed articles to Powell’s encyclopedia.  A panel discussion will be held in which they will discuss what they contributed to the work and how they became involved in the project.  Mr. Powell will be available to autograph copies of his many works that are already in publication for book owners such as “The North Carolina Gazetteer” (1968), and “The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography” (1979-1996). 


William S. Powell’s research and writings have given our state a unique collection of reference books which no other state in the U.S. can claim.  His works such as “North Carolina Through Four Centuries” (1989) are standards in reference departments and with researchers across the country.  His writings over the years have included documentary volumes on a wide scope of North Carolina topics such as the Regulators, William Tryon, the University of North Carolina, John Pory, and a history of Caswell County. 


Powell was born in 1919 in Johnston County and raised in Statesville.  He attended Mitchell College for two years and then transferred to the University of North Carolina where he graduated in 1940.  He served in the military intelligence branch of the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II.  He returned to the University of North Carolina after the war where he earned degrees in history and library science. 


He worked as a librarian at Yale University for a year before returning to become a full-time research historian at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.  In 1952 he became assistant librarian at the North Carolina Collection at UNC, and in 1958, was promoted to curator.  Mr. Powell helped build the North Carolina Collection into what is now considered the premier research collection on our state’s history.  In 1973, he became a professor of history at the university, teaching more than 6,000 students before his retirement in 1986.


Now 88 years young, Mr. Powell shows no signs of slowing down in his passion for history.  He is now working on a book on Frank I. Wilson, a reporter in Eastern North Carolina, who covered such stories as the 1859 execution of abolitionist John Brown.  Though his “Encyclopedia of North Carolina” took 15 years to research, he is still isn’t finished with it.  He plans to do a 2nd edition in 5 to 7 years which he hopes will include articles he was forced to leave out in the first edition.


(Note: William Powell died on April 10, 2015 at the age of 95).


Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library


For the Statesville Record and Landmark

April 16, 2015