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BEATING THE ODDS W. Paul Coates rescues the literary history of African-Americans


Paul Coates -- African-American publisher of books for, by and about people of African-American descent -- didn't listen when people told him it could not be done.

There were those who said he could never start a publishing business on $300 -- and that was money he had borrowed. Statistics, they said, showed that African-Americans face even higher odds for failing in business ventures than whites. They said New York was the place to start a book publishing company, not Baltimore.

Finally, they said, don't take the added risk of focusing only on books by and about people of African descent.

Mr. Coates listened to none of the naysayers, and now the Black Classic Press -- which he founded along with his wife Cheryl -- is about to enter its 15th year.

He admits that it has not always been easy. Also, the business will probably never make him a wealthy man, he says. But Mr. Coates believes there are many barometers for judging success other than the size of a bank account.

"We are very successful. We are not very rich. The fact that we have survived against all of these so-called odds means that we are successful," says Mr. Coates, while sitting in an office in his Lochearn home, where the business is located.

"I've known Paul for a long time," says Calvin Reid, associate news editor at Publishers Weekly magazine, which is based in New York. "He is well respected as a publisher of classic black books."

Bakari Kitwana, editor of the African-American Publishers, Booksellers and Writers Association, says Mr. Coates has successfully filled a niche in the publishing world.

"He went into an area that no one had previously dealt with," says Mr. Kitwana from his Chicago office.

"The books he publishes are obscure . . . but very significant to our community. His efforts to republish works such as 'Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire' [by the late Drusilla Dunjee Houston, first published in 1926] have inspired others to republish black classics," Mr. Kitwana says.

Mr. Coates says he has always followed his own mind.

This is the same man who once, after all, headed the state's Black Panther Party, which was headquartered in Baltimore. And that organization, which was active in the '60s and early '70s, thrived on being different from the status quo.

Mr. Coates doesn't really like to talk about his bygone days in "the party," but neither does he regret joining the organization.

"I have no apologies," the 45-year-old says.

A chaotic, pivotal time

He became involved with the Black Panthers during a very chaotic and pivotal time in American history. The year was 1968. College campuses across the country were erupting with students protesting against the Vietnam War.

Instead of going home to Philadelphia, Mr. Coates moved to Baltimore to be with the woman whom he would later marry.

He also joined the Black Panthers.

"I came back -- like thousands of other blacks from Vietnam -- feeling the frustration of the failure and stagnation of the civil rights movement," Mr. Coates recalled.

"It was a time that had witnessed the assassination of Marther Luther King and of Malcolm X. The assassination of Malcolm X was much more significant to me," he says.

"There were uprisings in every major city, and I wanted to do my part. I didn't want to be in the position of having my kids one day ask me, 'So what did you do?' A lot of young blacks were thinking like that at the time," he says.

Mr. Coates liked the Black Panther Party because it provided an outlet for his feelings. Besides the Black Panthers creed of "teaching our people self-defense as a means of survival," programs such as the free medical clinics, free breakfast and clothing programs appealed to him.

He also felt a camaraderie with the other members. "They were young, black, gifted, and ready to die for what they believed in," he says.

There were many clashes between the Black Panthers and police, both in Baltimore and in other urban areas around the country.

Although Mr. Coates was charged with "everything from parking tickets" to pointing a weapon at police, his only convictions were for the parking tickets.

"I never had to do any real serious time in jail," he says. "The longest time I spent in jail was for about eight days when they tried to hold us without bail."

George Hurd, who described himself as "a Black Panther sympathizer" at the time, spent some days behind bars with Mr. Coates. They remain friends today.

"When I first met Paul, our ideologies didn't actually jibe," says Mr. Hurd, now 44 and a health educator in Baltimore. "I was involved with black nationalism -- separate but equal -- while socialism was what the Panthers believed in. He got me to understand that black nationalism was not the only way to go," he says.

Mr. Hurd believes that he and Mr. Coates have changed since that time.

More responsibility

"We've both become a lot more conservative with age," he says. "It is a different time now. We have more responsibility, for one thing. We deal with things differently. I'm a health educator who works with the minority community, and he is a publisher. Time has allowed us to look at things differently."

Mr. Coates, who headed the Black Panthers here from June 1970 to late 1971, left the party because of differences on how the organization was being run, including the way finances were handled.

The financial dependence on people outside the party never did sit well with Mr. Coates.

"The party depended a lot on donations from both blacks and whites," he says. "That bothered me. I resented the fact that you had to beg people for your liberation. J. Edgar Hoover didn't have to spend millions and millions of dollars trying to destroy the party," Mr. Coates says. "Anybody could see that their financing was going to tear them down!"

So, he went out on his own, dabbling in a number of ventures and organizations including running a bookstore from 1972 to 1978.

A return to school

He also went back to school, eventually graduating with a bachelor's degree in community development from what is now Sojourner-Douglass College and getting a master's in library science from Atlanta University.

So how did he evolve from a high profile Black Panther leader to a publisher of primarily "obscure and significant" books?

"My conversion from a street activist to someone who works with the mind is because the struggle in our community had to begin with the mind," says Mr. Coates. But don't assume this means the former Black Panther state coordinator is no longer pTC passionate about his work.

Mr. Coates, a big, bearded man, nearly jumps out of his seat with excitement while talking about some of the formerly out-of-print books that the company has republished.

"So much of our history goes astray," he says, eyes burning with intensity. "These books are reminders of what is, what was and what can be. If we lose these pieces of history, we end up with holes. It is these obscure pieces that must be preserved."

The mission of the press

It is the mission of Black Classic Press, he says, to search out these "obscure and significant" works, and to republish and preserve them.

Mr. Coates wanted to have a say on what books were being published, and he began Black Classic Press after closing the book store.

One of the lessons he carried with him from his days with the Panthers was not to rely on outside financing.

"We don't look for grants," he says. "Though, don't get me wrong, there is a place for grants in this world. But an organization is in real trouble if it has to depend on grants."

To support his family and the struggling publishing company, he worked as a librarian at Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, which collects materials on black literature and history.

He left Howard University last year to work full time for the company which has two other full-time employees.

Mrs. Coates, who married her husband 18 years ago, after his first marriage ended, is a special education teacher in a Washington school. She also handles the company's finances. Black Classic Press, she says, "was more Paul's dream," although she and the seven Coates children all helped to get the business going.

"We started in the basement of our old house on Park Heights Avenue," she recalled. "In the beginning, we lived a very, very sparse life, although -- when you look back on it now -- it was fun. Paul always felt that he had a mission in life as far as being a positive influence on the black community."

Although the company's motto is "A Young Press with Some Very Old Ideas," Mr. Coates began the W. M. Du Forself Press offshoot in 1989 to publish new works about the African-American experience.

That won't be his primary focus, though. "We won't do a lot of contemporary pieces," he says. "We've got a backlog of old stuff that has to come out."

The ultimate test of the business' success, he concludes, is if the company is still around -- even when he isn't. "If this outlives me, . . . if it outlives my children, then it would have been a success," he says.



Occupation: Founder and owner of Black Classic Press.

Age: 45.

Home: Lochearn in Baltimore County.

Marital status: Married for 18 years to Cheryl Waters.

Children: Seven, whose ages range from 9 to 24.

Education: Bachelor's degree in community development in 1979 from what is now Sojourner-Douglass College. Master's degree in library science in 1980 from Atlanta University.

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