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Steve Helber, Associated Press
Virginia Supreme Court Justice, Cleo Elaine Powell, center, kisses her mom, Mary Powell, seated left, as her husband, Alvin Dilworth, right, looks on after she was sworn in at the court chambers in Richmond, Va., Friday, Oct. 21, 2011.

RICHMOND, Va. — As the Virginia Supreme Court's first black female justice was sworn in Friday, she paused to remember generations who went before her.

Cleo E. Powell — accompanied by her husband and her mother — placed her left hand on her late father's Bible and Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser administered the oath of office.

"I recognize and I know this is not about me," she later told the packed courtroom. "It's never been about me. It's about the thousands of people who have worked diligently and given their lives that these opportunities will be available."

The General Assembly last winter elected Powell, 54, to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Leroy Hassell Sr.

Before joining the Supreme Court, Powell served more than two years on the Virginia Court of Appeals. She previously served as a circuit court and general district court judge for Chesterfield County and Colonial Heights.

Powell specialized in labor and employment law for the Hunton & Williams law firm in Richmond, then worked in the state attorney general's office and for Virginia Power before being elected to the bench.

"It's truly a great blend of experience in the public and private sectors," Gov. Bob McDonnell said.

But equally impressive, he said, is Powell's work in the community — particularly her service on the board of the Central Virginia Foodbank.

Her pastor, Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, also lauded Powell for church activities benefiting children and the homeless.

"Cleo is humble, she is faithful, and truly her works speak for her," he said.

Powell joined the court at the same time as Justice Elizabeth McClanahan, who also was elevated from the Virginia Court of Appeals. McClanahan's investiture was Sept. 1.

To tell Powell's story, her cousin relayed a tale he first heard at a family gathering in 1961.

The Rev. Grady Wilson Powell Sr. told the audience it began in 1865, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had just surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

At a plantation in Brunswick County near the North Carolina line, the landowner gathered his slaves and told them, "We have lost. You can no longer stay here as slaves." Twelve-year-old ex-slave Jim Powell started walking east along a wagon trail. As the sun began to set, he panicked, realizing he had nowhere to go. He came upon a house, where he stopped and asked for a job.

For the next five years, Jim Powell worked for the family while living in the loft of an outbuilding. He met a girl and married, and they had 11 children — one of whom became Cleo Powell's grandfather.

"And that's why we're here today," Grady Powell said.

"On this day as we remember yesterday, let us with joy in our hearts and thanksgiving to God look forward to the future with our honored justice," he said.