Interviewed by Akira Gamblin April 26, 1974.
Prince Coleman interview
AG: My name is Akira Gamblin, and I am in the home of Mr. Prince A. Coleman, who is Vice-Mayor of Glade Spring. He also works for the Appalachian Power Company. Today is April 26, 1974. Mr. Coleman, could you tell us a little bit about your experience in growing up and your education.
PC: I was born in the community by the name of Blacksburg, south of Emory, Virginia in March, 1933. The community consisted about 150 Blacks. And I begin my education in Washington County Elementary School at Meadowview, Virginia, and I continued there until third grade. At that time, my father, Mr. Isaac Coleman, was working at the Emory & Henry College for a very small salary, so he decided to go to Akron, Ohio to gain a better employment. And then very shortly after that World War II had started. There was good money to be made away from home, and it would also be better for the family. After we moved to Ohio, my mother, Mrs. Roxanne Coleman, and my father both were employed at B. & F. Goodrich Company. About two years, me and my six brothers and sisters attended Brain Elementary School there, which was integrated, but we were made the change okay. And then my father received a call to the army, and we had to move back to Virginia. So I returned to Meadowview Elementary School in the six grade and finished on to high school. At that time, Washington County didn’t have a Black high school. In Blacksburg, there were only about three or four people who went on beyond the sixth grade because before that time there wasn’t a place to go except they went away to a boarding high school, or somewhere else. By this time, the County had made a deal with the city of Bristol to transport Black students to the city school system, which made it hard for the Black county school because they had to leave home about 7:30 in the morning and sometimes not returning until after dark. At that time, we thought it was real bad, but after giving it a lot of thought, we decided that we were getting the best end of the deal. We were able to attend an accredited high school and graduate from the twelfth grade, which in the county at that time, they had none accredited high schools – eleventh grade was as far as they would go. We were able to take part in such courses as typing, had shop, and had woodwork, and metal, which wasn’t being offered in the county and, really, we had the best end of the deal after all. While at Douglas, I participated in basketball, football, and at the same time played semi-professional baseball. I graduated in the class of 1950-51. I was offered a scholarship at three or four different colleges, but my parents still not able to send me to college. But I made up my mind that I was going to go or try to go anyway. So I set out to get a job and save what I could. So I got a job at Emory & Henry College. So I decided to go to Morristown College. I stayed there six months playing football. I saw I couldn’t make it – I just didn’t have the money or the proper clothes. I recall the night I was to attend the Coronation Ball. I had to borrow a suit from my uncle, who was a student there, and go and do my part, then return and let him use it himself. So I decided to quit and join the navy, then return and finish my education. By the way, this uncle finished and now has a master’s degree and is principal of the school in Akron, Ohio. By the time my navy duty was completed, I had gotten married to Miss Marjorie McNichols. Then I returned and took two years of “on the job” training with the laundry and dry cleaning firm in Abingdon, Virginia. After staying there elven years, I decided I would do something better, so then I decided on two different things: there wasn’t any Black state police at the time, and Appalachian Power Company didn’t have any Black, and I had been asked by a few people why didn’t I apply, so I decided that I would apply for Appalachian Power Company. So then I talked to the personnel manager there, and they seemed pretty interested in me and made an application that wasn’t too long, and I received employment there. And for the past six years, I’ve been working there.
AG: Mr. Coleman, you’ve been Vice-Mayor of Glade Spring for two years now and also on the town council. What were your reasons for going into politics?
PC: Well that goes back a long ways. When I became 21 year old, I went down here in town to Mr. John Wright’s to register to vote, so I could vote in the town election that year. At that time, you had to go to two places to get on two lists. Then, somehow there was a mistake in it, so I couldn’t vote that year. I found out that there were other Blacks also were in the same condition, so I began to ask myself questions such as: how did the people get these jobs. There were only a few Black voters in Glade then – only about 8 to be exact. An then on Election Day, some white fellows would come around and get them and tell them how to vote. I can recall when here in Glade when the town would pick up the white families’ trash every week and refuse to run the truck in the Black community. And a group of men who owned cars refused to buy the town tag. But we finally won out and today we have a trash pick-up. And these streets here in the Black community were nothing but mud when all the others were being paved. I used to listen to some other the older Black people complain about it, so I began to wonder what I could do to help some of these problems. So the first thing I did in politics was make up my mind which party I would like to become a part of and decided on the Democratic Party. Seems at that time they were doing more for my people and the poor whites. One night they had a meeting for the county; I attended and later was appointed to a committee. I remember the first mass meeting I ever attended to select delegates to the state convention – I was selected. And since then have been selected to two other times. One time I asked a friend of mine, Mr. Elmore Johnson, to go with me to one of the meetings, and he also joined. I told him, you know if we had more of our people to come to these mass meetings and conventions, one of us could easily become a candidate. So I started to coach a Little League Baseball around here and done a pretty good job, and came in contact with a lot of boys and their parents. [I was] there for about three or four years. I also took a cub master’s job. Oh yes, I also helped to organized the Little League Baseball, which serves around 90 boys of all races. By this time, we had a town council that was not doing anything but fighting among themselves. Businesses were closing and moving out of Glade. The town government had about completely gone out of business. They even had a fight one night and broke up the meeting. So some of the people came to me and asked me if I wouldn’t consider running – both Black and white. So after giving it some thought, I decided to run. I said to myself, now is a chance for me to open the way for some other Black, and to make things better for my children. So I began to talk to people to get their feelings and everyone was all for it. You know, about that time many Blacks were being elected to many offices in the South, and Washington County had never had a Black candidate. So I found out all the details in becoming a candidate. But the funniest thing happened the day I went to the county clerk’s office to qualify. When I asked the lady for the proper papers, she began to act so funny. She said she didn’t know exactly what I needed to do, but I knew anyway. So she said she would send me the proper procedure in the mail the next day. But that night the clerical court called and told me what to do. Then I became qualified and made the announcement in the Bristol paper. Then I began to check the voters registration list for Glade and proceeded to get all the people registered who were eligible. We had 93 Blacks registered and 90 of them went to the polls and voted. I think this was one of the best joint efforts among the Blacks I have ever experienced. I visited every home in Glade and asked for their support. After that I felt that I would win, but never gave it any thought of getting the highest amount of votes any councilman has gotten in Glade. We had the highest turnout also. It had always been a policy that whoever got the highest amount of votes was automatically the Vice-Mayor. But the first meeting we had, we elected one among ourselves. So I told them what I thought about it. I think some of them wanted me to win, but not big enough to be Vice-Mayor. But I was elected by my fellow councilmen anyway. I made a pledge that I would work for all the people. These are some of the things I was telling the people: first was to open a line of communication for tax payers in the town council by publicizing and opening regular scheduled town council meetings and by reopening the table of neglected complaints by citizens of the town to the town council before; second to get tax payers more service for their tax dollars such as: working on medical service, sewage system, and bringing industry in, and improving housing, and improving police protection. I also told them most of these could be financed through a federal program without increasing their taxes. So this is election year again and all the candidates are taking a longer look at the Black community. This time I think they learned something. The last time around, that these people are going to have a voice in who will be their governing body from now on.
AG: Now that you have been on the town council for two years, what are some of the key decisions and programs that you have set fourth for the Black community in Glade Spring?
PC: Well, the first thing I would like to say, I noticed that you said, what decisions I have made to effect the Black community. If you recall, I made a pledge that I would work for all the people and not just the Black people. I would like to leave this council with the people remembering me as a town councilman, just as they have everyone else – not the first Black councilman. There’s a problem I try not to think of it as who it will effect or if they are Black or white. When I was campaigning, some of my opposition went around and told the first thing I wanted to do if elected was to hire a Black policeman. So I was asked by my white friend, so the first I told them was if there was an opening and one applied, and had the same qualifications as anyone else who had made an application, certainly he would be considered. There definitely wouldn’t be any of this “double standards” stuff as there has been before. I promised myself, if I was elected, I would take a firm stand on what I believe in and what would be the best interest for the majority of the people. One decision I recall I had to make, which caused quite a bit of trouble was the manager of Vance company here had some remodeling done on the store. He decided to black-top a space between the street and his place of business, so he did it himself and after completing it, asked the town to pay half of it. So I took a firm stand on it and spoke out against paying anything and told him that he should have contacted the town first. So it was voted down and one day shortly after that I was in his store [and] he jumped all over me about it. What made it bad was he had served on the town council for two or three terms in the past and supported me when I ran. He said, that’s okay, you’ll have to run again. I told him that we will cross that bridge when we get to it. But for now, I am going to do what I think is right, and had you been in my place, you would have done the same thing. Another big decision we had to make was to raise the water rent, which upset a lot of people. You know, Glade has its own water system. The town buys the water from the sanitary district from Washing County and then resell it to the town’s customers, setting its own rates. So happened [was] the cost to the town was raised from 10 cents per thousand to 20 cents per thousand. About a year before we took office the town was paying about $1,100 a month for the water and taking in about $800 in receipts, so something had to be done. We voted to raise the minimum from $2 to $3. An also we made a survey and found that a lot the customers were not metered and some were running two or three places on one meter, and paying one minimum for two dollars. In one case, the ex-chairman of the water committee was not metered and never had been, and was operating his household and two other houses and a dairy barn. And we corrected that and almost got run out of town. I was accused of instigating that. By the way, we all serve on different committees. I serve on the light and street committee, and the water committee, and the recreation and finance committee. Since being on there, I have succeeded in getting a few more lights in the Black community and the streets that were bad – either paved or repaved. I think the biggest decision I have in the next two years will be if I should run again or not. I think the biggest thing I have done for the Black community in the past two years was to let the people know that this end of the town is also a part of Glade Spring. I think that the majority of the Blacks realize this and appreciate it – that I have not sold them out. I have not missed a meeting since being elected and have been instrumental in getting some of the Blacks on some of the town’s advisory committees. I think that from now on there will be a Black or some Blacks on the town council here – or at least I hope so. I think the people here have realized the color of a man’s skin don’t make the man. I told the people that I would not be there just to make the town council technicolor. I think some of the white people expected me to just sit there and not say anything or take part in anything. We have had training courses in town government where we would have to go away or miss a day’s work, but I’ve always managed to go somehow. Oh yes, one of the other things I helped to organized was that I helped to organize a community center here in the Black community, and served on the board of directors for quite a few years. The center has a library with many volumes of books. And all sorts of recreation such as basketball and volleyball and small games, and at the present time, employs two people every day. It also acts as a meeting place for the community. I think it is one of the best in Southwest Virginia. The Black people take very much pride in it also. Another thing the town has done is we have purchased a building that costs $46,000 for the purpose of a medical center. And now we are in the process of obtaining two doctors if possible and a dentist – which I think is one of the needed things for Glade Spring and the outlying area. Another thing the town has also built is two professional size tennis courts, which I think the people are going to enjoy very much. And they have just now been completed.
AG: Would you like to discuss a little bit about your knowledge of Black Cultural History and comment on a few Black figures such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and the Muslims, and Martin Luther King Jr. And are there any of these men that you admire and look up to?
PC: One thing I am glad someone has begun to realize that Black history is as important in schools as any other history, and that our children should have opportunities to learn more about Black history other than just slavery because a lot of the Black men have contributed a lot to the success to America. The only thing we used to see in the news was something bad some Black had done and nothing about the good things they’ve done. I think the best thing that has happened is that Blacks have taken pride in being Black. I guess you have heard the phrase, “Black and Proud.” I remember when you called a Black person “Black” and you had a fight on your hands. And now they have learned to be proud of their inheritance from their forefathers. Now a Black person can’t stand to be called “colored,” as it used to be the word. In my books, Martin Luther King was the best of all the known leaders. Black Muslims or the other followers of Malcolm X used formal and informal religious appeals and created more or less religious organizations. [Adam] Clayton Powell represented a junction of religion and politics. I often speak of the three “K’s,” Kennedy, King, and Khrushchev. King is my best pick of them all. He moved the struggle from the courtroom to the streets and from the law libraries to the pews of the church, and from the minds to the souls. His slogan was, “Love your enemies.” One thing I think a lot of, a lot of people fail to realize [was] that he not only did a lot for the Blacks but [for] poor whites also. What he really proved was that if Blacks and poor whites got together, they could accomplish anything because they would be in the majority. Of course, there are many more Black who contributed a lot to the cause such as Jackie Robinson and some of the radicals done some good and some bad such as Stokely Carmichael and others and so forth. Another thing I think Martin Luther King did was he proved to people that all the problems just wasn’t in the South and that we also had problems in the North and in our schools and housing projects and what not also. And I think he also proved that the churches should be the main leaders in these problems and struggles that has confronted the Black and also the poor whites.