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William P. Powell, Sr. was an Afro-American former sailor, who, along with his wife Mercy, was a staunch abolitionist. As such, Powell was the secretary of the Manhattan section of the Anti-slavery Society and operated several boarding houses for black seamen in Bedford and New York City, providing refuge for tired sailors and fugitive slaves.

During the New York City draft riots of 1863, the Powells offered shelter to Abraham, an old man who was looking for his missing daughter as the rioters were targeting the Afro-Americans denizens of New York City. However, the rioter soon attacked Powell's Colored Seamen's Home, and Abraham, Mrs. Powell and her children fled while Powell stayed behind to try to stop the rioters.

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