The Raleigh News & Observer described William S. Powell (b. 1919) as a “living repository of information on all things North Carolinian.” Born in Smithfield as the latest of many generations of Powells in Johnston County, he moved with his parents to Statesville when he was three years old. He learned to enjoy history soon after he started school because, at the close of each day, when his grandmother was visiting from Smithfield, she asked, “What did you learn in school today?” Then he recounted his school day lessons one by one—history at its most basic, “his story.”
He attended Mitchell College for two years before transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduation in 1940, he served in the military intelligence branch of the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He earned degrees in history and library science, again from UNC-Chapel Hill, following that with one year’s work as a librarian at Yale University. In 1948 Powell became 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-Chapel Hill and was promoted to curator in 1958, going on to help build the state’s premier research collection on NC history. By 1973 he was Professor of History at the University, teaching more than 6,000 students before retiring in 1986.
He has a witty prose style that’s exhaustive, not exhausting, in its presentation of North Carolina’s history, geography, biographies, and places. Winner of many major awards, he is the author of North Carolina: A History (1997) for general readers; a classic undergraduate text, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (1989); and The North Carolina Gazeteer (1968), which lists the names and founding dates, along with a short historical essay, of every notable place in the state; among many others.
Dictionary of North Carolina biography: Volume 5 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1994):