He was born April 5, 1937, in Harlem, the son of Jamaican immigrants. Dad Luther Powell was a shipping-room foreman in the garment district, and his mother, Maud Ariel McKoy, was a seamstress.
"Mine is the story of a Black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx," he wrote in his 1995 autobiography "My American Journey."
He was raised on Kelly Street in the Bronx and graduated from Morris High School. A mediocre student by his own account, he averaged Cs at City College of New York, majoring in geology.
"Raised by immigrant parents in a working-class neighborhood of New York's South Bronx, Powell never excelled in academics or athletics," Jeffrey J. Matthews wrote in his 2019 book, Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot. "Nor did he display the extroverted qualities so often associated with burgeoning young leaders."
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But it was at City College that Powell enrolled in the ROTC program, drawn by the camaraderie, discipline and well defined goals. He joined the Pershing Rifles, a drill team started by World War I commander Gen. John J. Pershing.
When he put on his first uniform, "I liked what I saw," he wrote.
An ROTC training tour in North Carolina gave Powell his first glimpse of life outside New York, where he was forced to use segregated washrooms at gas stations.
Powell graduated from CCNY in June 1958 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, the start of his 35-year military career.
He was one of more than 16,000 "advisers" sent to South Vietnam by President John F. Kennedy. A series of promotions led to the Pentagon and assignment as a military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who became his unofficial sponsor.
He later became commander of the Army 5th Corps in Germany and later was national security assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
He rose to the rank of four-star general and in 1989 became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that role, he oversaw the U.S. invasion of Panama and later the U.S. invasion of Kuwait to oust the Iraqi army in 1991.
His legacy was forever marred when, in 2003, he went before the U.N. Security Council as secretary of state and made the case for U.S. war against Iraq. He cited faulty information claiming Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed away weapons of mass destruction. Iraq's claims that it had no such weapons represented "a web of lies," he told the world body.
Former President George W. Bush said Monday that he and former first lady Laura Bush were "deeply saddened" by Powell's death.
"He was a great public servant" and "widely respected at home and abroad," Bush said. "And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man."
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All the while, Powell kept on his desk a pen set he had won for an ROTC drill-team competition.
CCNY later named a school after him, the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, at 160 Convent Avenue.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called Powell "an absolutely classic New York City story."
"General Powell served this nation with tremendous distinction, but what we all feel as New Yorkers is he was an example of the greatness of New York City," he said. "Just an absolutely great example of the good, the talent, the ability, that comes out of the city...He also was, of course, a trailblazer, proving to the world, showing the world, that talent and ability comes in all colors, comes in all races, comes in all genders, comes in everything. And he opened the doors for so many others, so he's someone we are going to miss a lot. We are particularly going to miss him because he showed the world what New York City is all about. Anyone here, anyone and everyone, has the opportunity. We foster it, we respect it, we believe in each New Yorker."
There are several other schools named after Powell throughout the country, including one in Union City, New Jersey, that Powell visited in 2013.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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