Achebe Betty Powell, a major figure in LGBTQ rights in the years after Stonewall, has died at age 82.
If you’d like to learn more, check out her 2004 oral history interview conducted Kelly Anderson for by Smith College.
Achebe Betty Powell (b.1940) was raised in Florida, graduated with a B.A. from The College of St. Catherine and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from Fordham University, and has resided in New York City for the past 40 years. Powell has been an activist since high school, when she joined the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Powell was a self-possessed and mature young woman—from her activism, to living abroad with her father, to being one of the only black students at a Midwestern Catholic women’s college. As an adult, Powell was poised to take leadership in many liberation struggles. Powell was a key player in the Gay Academic Union, the National Black Feminist Organization, and the National Gay Task Force. She was a founding member of Salsa Soul Sisters and the Astraea Foundation. Powell has been a professor at Brooklyn College, a social worker, and an employee at Kitchen Table Press before she went on to diversity and anti-racism training, work which has taken her around the globe in the struggle for human rights and liberation. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. An epilogue regarding Powell’s name change—from Betty Jean Powell, when the interview took place, to Achebe Betty Powell—follows the transcript.
Via The Advocate, she attended the historic meeting of lesbian and gay leaders at the Jimmy Carter White House in 1977. She was featured in the documentary Word Is Out, a groundbreaking 1977 documentary featuring 26 gay and lesbian Americans. It was released the following year as a book. While I served on the board at Outfest, we were proud to partner with the UCLA Film & Television Archive to restore and preserve this important cultural document.
In 2020, Powell spoke of the power and joy in living an authentic and free life:
The notion of freedom is such a powerful, tender, all-encompassing way of being in the world, who you came to this place to be. And that shows by the pigmentation in my skin, it shows by the texture of my hair, the shape of my nose, whatever, and they call that race and color. And the shape of my body and my body parts, and they call that gender. And then the shape of my mind and where it wants to go and where and how it wants to be. And among the how I want to be and who I want to love, and they call that being a lesbian, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Rest in Power, Achebe!
Image: YouTube / LGBTCenterNYC