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Howard Wilson Coles
For nearly a century (1903–1996), Howard Wilson Coles studied and recorded our culture, and was an outspoken conscience of the community. A man who acted not for personal gain, but for causes he believed were right and just, Coles both chronicled and shaped us. Yet unlike his hero, Frederick Douglass, his name is not well known to many today.
Coles sprang from the tradition of Rochester inventors personified by industrialists like George Eastman, Edward Bausch and Joseph Wilson (a personal friend), and social reformers Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Born in a time characterized by pervasive prejudice and discrimination toward African Americans, Coles envisioned a future with equal opportunities for all, and then dedicated his life to making that vision a reality. Coles accomplished a great deal in his 93 years.
His record of achievements includes:
Groundbreaking Print and Broadcast Journalist
Howard Coles founded and then for more than 60 years published
The Frederick Douglass Voice
newspaper (1934-1996), giving voice to the concerns and interests of Rochester's African Americans. It became the longest continuously published African-American newspaper in Rochester history.
In 1938, WSAY hired Coles as Rochester's first African-American radio announcer. He opened doors for other African Americans into the field of broadcast journalism.
Historian and Author
Decades ahead of his time, Coles realized how important and empowering it was for African Americans to have accurate knowledge of their cultural heritage. In 1941, he wrote and published The Cradle of Freedom, a scholarly history of African Americans in western New York. He later wrote an unpublished second volume, The Negro Family in Rochester.
An expert on the life and writings of Frederick Douglass, Coles re-established Rochester's annual Douglass Day celebrations and added a Negro Exposition of Progress.
In 1939, Coles produced the first survey of African-American housing conditions in the state.
After the Depression of the 1930s, Coles surveyed local African Americans to learn how they had fared. He produced the City Directory of Negro Business and Progress, 1939-40, and showed that despite setbacks, progress continued to be made.
After investigating and reporting problems, Coles became an agent for change.
He became a Real Estate Agent and helped buyers get loans from local banks where they had been discriminated against.
He was particularly successful in improving the substandard housing conditions imposed on many African Americans in the city and in area migrant farm camps.
He ran for public office to "plant the seeds of the idea that these sorts of things weren't unattainable even to blacks."
He called upon African Americans to patronize black-owned businesses and African-American professionals.
Coles said he never passed up an opportunity to "spread the word," and he was a frequent and eloquent public speaker.
Following the Rochester riots of 1964, Coles helped organize the FIGHT (Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today) organization and draft its constitution.
He also helped establish Action for a Better Community, an antipoverty agency, to serve Rochester and Monroe County.
Howard Coles served as the first local president of both the National Negro Congress and the National Association for the Advancement of colored People.
Coles' career as a trailblazer did not yield monetary rewards nor make his name a household word. Yet those who knew his work expressed their appreciation with heartfelt testimonials and, toward the end of his life, official recognition.
He was on a first-name basis with Presidents Roosevelt, Johnson and Nixon.
He received numerous awards and honors, including nomination for the NAACP Spingarn Medal which recognizes the highest achievement by an African American.
Coles had a long relationship with the RMSC as a consulting historian. He was awarded status as an RMSC Fellow in Local History in 1988. The 1996 RMSC publication, Images: "Afro-Rochester" 1910-1935 is dedicated to him. Coles coined the phrase "Afro-Rochester" in the 1930s.
In 1996, the New York State Division of Human Rights awarded Coles the Loftus C. Carson Human Rights Award for Dedication to the Advancement of Human Rights.
Rochester's Mayor William Johnson, 10 ministers and his granddaughter, Shelaine Lockhart Peters, eloquently eulogized Howard Coles during the funeral ceremony at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, December 16, 1996. Rev. Leardrew Johnson quoted a powerful scripture to encapsulate the feelings of all who knew Mr. Coles and his work when he proclaimed: "On this day a prince has fallen."
The Howard Wilson Coles Collection
On August 3, 1999 the RMSC announced a major gift from the family of
Frederick Douglass Voice
publisher Howard Wilson Coles. Joan Howard, daughter of Coles, and Shelaine Peters, Coles' granddaughter, donated to the RMSC more than 100 boxes of personal and professional documents that record the breadth of the 20th century.
The Howard Wilson Coles Collection includes photographs, documents, manuscripts, newspapers and works of art that span the late 19th and entire 20th centuries. It provides documentation for the most personal events - such as the marriage certificate of Coles' grandparents and notes from his children and grandchildren - to events of national significance, such as an original carte-de-visite of Coles' hero, Frederick Douglass; or snapshots of Martin Luther King's funeral. Coles documented instances of discrimination in Rochester that he observed, from the refusal of a local nursery school to admit an African-American child in the 1930s to Coles' postwar efforts to find employment for African Americans in local companies. The collection also features the work of local African American artists and photographers.
The legacy that Coles has left through this collection is unparalleled, not only in this community but also in the nation. It sheds light on the remarkable career of a trailblazer in human rights activism, journalism, history and culture, and at the same time offers a sweeping look at 20th century America. Included are the books from the personal library that inspired and informed Coles' efforts, as well as records of the myriad grass roots organizations - from the local branch NAACP to the Frederick Douglass Nonviolence League to FIGHT - he joined or helped form to combat racism. The collection makes it possible to trace the processes involved in the development of various social agencies and the barriers they faced.
Also part of the collection is the morgue of the newspaper that Coles published for six decades, The Frederick Douglass Voice, along with numerous issues of the publication. Scripts and audio tapes of Coles' radio programs document his groundbreaking career as a broadcast journalist. In addition are research papers for Coles' two histories, The Cradle of Freedom, published in 1941, and its companion volume, The Negro Family in Rochester, which remains unpublished today. This part of the collection will be invaluable for African-American family genealogies, local historians and any who study journalism in general and the African-American press in particular.
In June of 2002 The NYS Education Department's Documentary Heritage Program announced a grant of $15,649 to arrange and catalog this valuable collection.
For more information on the Howard Coles Collection, visit the RMSC's
Rochester Museum & Science Center
— 657 East Avenue, Rochester NY, 14607 — (585) 271 4320