Romae Turner Powell was raised in Atlanta, Georgia and went on to become a female African-American lawyer and judge. Acting first as a private lawyer, she worked with poor African-American families and with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Later, she became the first African-American state court judge in Georgia. In this position, she worked with juveniles in the court system and advocated for change in the system.
Romae Turner Powell was born in Atlanta, Georgia on August 3, 1926, the youngest of five children. Her father, born in Crawfordsville, Georgia, was employed at a white-owned laundromat and worked to shield his children from some of the more damaging aspects of the segregated South at this time. Powell recalled her father’s efforts with admiration, saying, “My father was quite a man, and a kind of philosopher. He would shield us from segregated facilities like the movie houses and didn’t want me to baby-sit for families because then I might see myself as a servant. He also saw the potential for a desegregated world.” As a child, reading and the Baptist faith were highly held values in the Turner household and both Powell’s father and mother, a housewife, were constantly reading silently and aloud to the children.
Though she grew up in the South where there were few African-American lawyers and even fewer African-American female lawyers, Powell decided to become a lawyer in eighth grade after writing an assignment for class. Later she recalled this turning point saying, “Part of my paper dealt with attorneys. I discovered that black people often went unrepresented and were treated unfairly in the courts. And they lacked the money to pay for good attorneys if they were available. My idea was to become a lawyer and provide representation for black people” Her ambitions were supported by her mother and father who told her, “‘You’re as good as anyone else. Education will provide you the opportunity o compete with white people. While you’re sleeping, the white man is getting ahead of you.’” She was further inspired by the news surrounding the famous Scottsboro Boys case, in which nine African-American youths were falsely arrested for assault and rape charges. Though her father died when Powell was only fourteen, she continued to be inspired by his support and encouragement. She graduated high in her class from Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta and attended Spelman College, a historically black women’s college established in 1881. She graduated with the class of 1947 and then briefly left Georgia to complete her law degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C. While at Howard, Powell was able to witness the system in action by attending Supreme Court hearings with her classmates.
After graduating from Howard in 1950, she returned to Georgia to open a private law firm on historic Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, which specialized in serving African-American persons and families from lower socio-economic backgrounds. She also volunteered her services to the NAACP on desegregation and other cases in Georgia. Her assistance in preparing the case played a pivotal role in preventing the Georgia state government from obtaining the organization’s membership list.
In 1954, she married C. Clayton Powell, president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP and an optometrist in Atlanta. The couple had two children, C. Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1954 and Rometta Powell in 1959. Remembering his mother Clayton, Jr. later said, “She’s mom, mommy, babe. We’ve always been close. I call her my best girlfriend. At home, she was mom. No matter how busy she was, she was there for whatever I needed. We sat up many nights when I needed to talk things over with her.” Rometta, now a dentist in Atlanta, recalled things similarly, “She worked long hours as a lawyer, but still spent lots of time with us. We always had a lot of fun together.” Speaking with Ebony magazine about the difficulties of being both a businesswoman and a mother Powell said, “You do not have time for frivolities. You have to make every minute of the day count.”
Powell continued operating in private practice until 1968 when she took on a more public persona. She “accepted appointment as the full-time referee for the Fulton County Juvenile Court, the first black referee in the court’s long history.” Judge John S. Langford, Jr., who felt the courts needed a respectable black judge on the bench, made the appointment. Approximately five years later, Judge Langford, the juvenile judge of Fulton County, was promoted and thus a new opportunity to serve as a full court judge opened up for Powell. Judge Langford supported Powell’s application to the courtship and promoted her appointment within the Judicial Selection Committee of the Atlanta Bar Association. The combination of Judge Langford’s support and Powell’s sterling record was enough to make her both the first appointed African-American judge and the first appointed African-American female judge in the state of Georgia. Remarking on her achievement she said, “I’m very pleased with the appointment and I’m looking forward to continuing my work with juveniles.”
Upon her appointment, Powell was not met with an easy task. There was resistance and some resentment among her white coworkers at the courts. In fact, it was not until 1967 that the courthouse was entirely desegregated, with whites and African-Americans using the same toilets and with white and African-American juveniles being placed with different race probation officers. One of Powell’s former co-workers recalled the time period, saying, “There was a lot of staff anxiety… Certain white staff members saw her as a threat. But any staff concerns evaporated rapidly.” Powell admitted to being met with resistance from people entering her courtroom—even by African-American plaintiffs and defendants, who were not used to seeing an African-American female behind the bench. Despite these challenging circumstances, Judge Powell was respected for her composure and competence on the bench, even when working with persons who yelled racist epithets at her in her own courtroom. She ran her courtroom differently than many of her fellow judges, swearing in each juvenile herself and requiring each defendant to write and turn in an essay regarding his or her charge(s). These personal touches served to improve her reputation among both her colleagues and the juveniles themselves.
Judge Powell worked to improve the lives of juveniles outside of the courtroom, as well. She helped to establish vocational training and activities intended to teach responsibility to the juveniles. She also advocated to raise the legal age of adulthood to 18 in the state of Georgia, believing that permanently criminalizing a 17-year old was equal to “ruin[ing] their opportunities for their futures.” Judge Powell even worked to improve the quality of the food the children received while in Georgia detention centers. While she typically heard cases Monday through Wednesday, she reserved the last two days of the workweek primarily for committee meetings. Judge Powell was active in various legal and state organizations. She was appointed by Georgia Governor George Busbee to the State Crime Committee and to the National Council of Juvenile Court Justice’s Committee on Serious and Repeat Offenders. In addition she served as president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges, served on the Georgia Alliance for Children, and was a leader of the Gate City Bar Association (GCBA), an organization to further the educational and professional prospects of black lawyers in Georgia.
Judge Powell’s personal and professional life is a model for other activists, lawyers, and judges. Despite the challenges she faced within and outside the court she believed in the juvenile courts and in the ability of the offenders to establish a better life. Speaking later about her time on the bench she said, “Most children are amenable to juvenile court treatment and are not particularly dispose[d] to going in a wrong direction. They are looking for some kind of supervision to give them the tools they need to make the decisions they should make.” Judge Powell died at age 63 in Atlanta, Georgia from lung cancer in 1990. Her memory lives on in the example she set and the lives she touched.