Alma Johnson is the older of two daughters born to Robert Charles and Mildred Bell Johnson. She attended Pratt Elementary School and then A. H. Parker High School, where her father was the principal. After graduating, at age sixteen, in 1954 she enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She earned her bachelor of arts there in 1957 and took a job hosting a radio program, "Lunching with Alma," on Birmingham's WJLD-AM.
In 1958 Johnson moved to Boston, Massachusetts to study pathology and audiology at Emerson University while also working with the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing. She met Colin Powell, a young army officer stationed at nearby Fort Devens, on a blind date.
She and Captain Powell were married at First Congregational Christian Church in Birmingham on August 25, 1962 shortly before he was deployed to Vietnam. They spent their first night at the A. G. Gaston Motel before making the trip back to Boston.
Once he was deployed, and she was pregnant with their first child, Michael, Alma returned to Birmingham to live with her parents. As the Civil Rights Movement raised tensions in the city, her father stayed up nights cradling a shotgun to guard their house. Meanwhile Alma deflected pleas from her in-laws to come live with them in Queens, New York with the baby.
Captain Powell's first tour was shortened when he was wounded by a punji stake. Alma accompanied him to various stateside postings, then returned to Birmingham in 1968 when he prepared for a second tour in Vietnam. Major and Mrs Powell dined at the Parliament House hotel on the eve of his departure in July. As her husband rose through the ranks, she raised Michael and two younger daughters, Linda and Annemarie. The stress was exacerbated by a bout of clinical depression in the 1980s.
As the children grew up and Colin advanced to the Pentagon and the president's cabinet, Alma took on initiatives aimed at supporting education and the arts. She is currently the chair of the Pew Center for Civic Change, co-chair of America’s Promise: The Alliance for Youth, and vice chair of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.
Alma has also written children's books, including America’s Promise and My Little Red Wagon. A branch of the Kalamazoo, Michigan Public Library system was named in her honor. In 2011 the Powells were jointly honored as National Education Policy Leader of the Year by the National Association of State Boards of Education. They reside in McLean, Virginia.
The Powells were visiting Alabama in March 1993. Alma stayed with friends in Birmingham while her husband congratulated the National Champion 1992 Alabama Crimson Tide football team in Tuscaloosa. Their flight out of Birmingham International Airport was nearly delayed by the Blizzard of 1993.
- "Colin Powell & Alma Johnson" (February 12, 1996) People, Vol. 45, No. 6
- Powell, Colin & Joseph E. Persico (2010) My American Journey. New York, New York: Random House ISBN 0307763684
- Alma Powell at thehistorymakers.com