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L’Toska “Tos” Powell, 97, hair stylist to African-American stars

L’ToskPowell counted LenHorne MahaliJacksDinah Washingtamong clients relatives say.

L’Toska Powell counted Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Washington among clients, relatives say.

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Updated: October 19, 2011 3:58AM

Born in the bad old days when African-Americans had to step off the sidewalk for whites in her Mississippi town, L’Toska Powell moved to Chicago, studied hairstyling under pioneering inventor Marjorie Joyner, and at 97, she could still recite the alphabet ... backwards.

When word got around about how gifted “Tos” was at fixing hair, she started attracting clients who were in town to appear at the Club DeLisa, a Bronzeville hotspot and one of the era’s pinnacles of African-American nightlife.

Soon Mrs. Powell was working on the heads of some of the most famous and chic black women in the world. Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson, and Dinah Washington were among her clients, relatives said.

At the end, Mrs. Powell’s life came full-circle. Her mother died when she was 17, so she stepped in to raise her 3-year-old brother, Moses “Lucky” Cordell — who went on to become a famed disc jockey and general manager at WVON radio.

When Mrs. Powell grew older, her brother asked her to move in with him, and he built her a chairlift so she could get up and down stairs.

She lived with him and his family for 14 years, having her customary coffee and toast each morning, reading her Bible, and watching TV’s Wheel of Fortune each evening. On the night Barack Obama was elected president, she dozed now and then, but insisted on staying up for his speech in Grant Park.

“I never thought I’d live to see it happen,” she said.

Mrs. Powell, 97, died Wednesday at Kindred Chicago Lakeshore Hospital.

She was born in Grenada, Miss., to a family filled with triple cousins. Her father Maxie married her mother, Eloise, and Maxie Cordell’s two brothers married Eloise’s two sisters. Eventually the three families all journeyed north to Chicago to seek a better life.

L’Toska arrived in Chicago in the early 1930s. Her family first lived at 3717 S. Cottage Grove. For a teen-aged girl raised during hard times in the rural South, it was like paradise, said her brother — the nightlife, the fashions, the bustle.

Still, she had responsibilities. In addition to taking care of her brother Moses, she minded the two children of her sister Frankie, who died young. “She never raised any children of her own, but she raised many children,” her brother said. “She was the go-to person for years. That’s why I was so happy to be able to bring her here and live with me.”

L’Toska graduated from Morgan Park High School and studied hair styling under Marjorie Joyner, the inventor of a wildly successful permanent-wave machine. Joyner was a protégé of Madam C. J. Walker, a beauty product pioneer who became the nation’s first African-American female millionaire.

Mrs. Powell did volunteer work for Congressman William L. “Big Bill” Dawson, a savvy South Side political boss. She was active with South Shore United Methodist Church.

“She was quite a Bible student, and read the Bible everyday and could quote it. And listen to this — my sister, at 97, could recite the alphabet backwards,” her brother said, “and not miss a beat.’’

She married her husband, Al, in 1954. They operated a gas station at 71st and Wabash for many years.

She could cook all the staples of soul food, but “my favorite that she made, and no one can make it but her, was lemon-cream pie with a graham cracker crust,” her brother said.

Mrs. Powell is also survived by her nieces Pamela Brown and Patricia Cordell, and her cousins Viola Turrett and Opal Nealy.

A viewing will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Carter Funeral Chapels, 2100 E. 75th St., with a funeral service at the chapels at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Burial is at Lincoln Cemetery at 123rd and Kedzie.

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