Gen. Colin Powell was the voice of Philly’s first talking pedestrian traffic signal

The country’s first African American secretary of state died Monday at 84.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in March 2003

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in March 2003

Ed Betz / AP Photo
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General Colin Powell, the country’s first African American secretary of state, died Monday at 84 years old after complications from COVID-19. He hailed from the South Bronx, but had a few, lasting ties to Philly.

Powell was the son of Jamaican immigrants, a product of New York City public schools, an undergraduate with a degree in geology, and a highly decorated military veteran. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father and grandfather and a great American,” his family said.

Right around the time he was ascending to eventually become one of the highest-ranking Black Americans in U.S. government history, Powell signed on for another first in Philadelphia:

He became the voice of the city’s first talking pedestrian traffic signal, installed near Temple University’s North Philly campus in April 1997.

“The signal is green to cross Broad Street!” a recording of Powell would say, helping visually impaired and other people safely get to the other side of the busy road.

When the signal recording went up, it was four years before he would be appointed to his historic position as secretary of state. At the time, Powell was exploring the prospect of a Republican presidential candidacy. He also founded an organization dedicated to uplifting economically disadvantaged children, and launched a leadership engagement center at his alma mater, City College.

Powell’s voice boomed from the post at Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue for nearly a decade. Why him? Because he agreed to do it. Apparently a traffic construction engineer for the Philadelphia Department of Streets named Steve Lorenz convinced Powell to record the clip when he was in town.

The famous inflection disappeared in 2006 when Streets installed the now-familiar chirping signals. The change annoyed pedestrians and business owners near the intersections at the time, the Temple News reported.

Powell’s local reach went far beyond the corner of Broad and Montgomery.

He received the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in 2002. The bipartisan award was established in 1988 and “honors men and women of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe,” according to the Constitution Center’s website.

Powell also spent 12 years as Chairman of the Eisenhower Fellowships, which is headquartered in Center City at the corner of 16th and Latimer. Powell chaired the organization, which furthers international leadership development, from 2006 until 2018.

When he left the post, he was memorialized in the most Philly way possible: with a mural.

A May 2018 ceremony for outgoing Eisenhower Fellowships chairman Powell brought hundreds of guests from around the world — including now-President Joe Biden — to the National Constitution Center in Philly. The ceremony culminated with the unveiling of a Colin Powell mural on the side of Olney Charter High School.

In a Facebook post about the occasion, Powell complimented the colorful, “beautiful” mural, led by artist Ernel Martinez, and called it “a gift,” writing, “I am humbled and so very proud of this.”

When he died, Powell was reportedly fully vaccinated against Covid-19 but had been treated for a rare form of blood cancer which, in conjunction with his age, placed him at greater risk for severe outcomes.

The CDC has noted that vaccines may offer less protection for immunocompromised adults after the initial full doses.The CDC has already approved booster shots to bolster vaccine effectiveness in vulnerable populations, including people with cancer.

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