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Early Who's Who of black Baltimore Directories: Listings of African-American doctors, lawyers and dentists in 'First Colored' offer a glimpse into the first half of the century.


Flipping through faded issues of "The First Colored Directory of Baltimore City" is a trip back in time.

Back to a time of segregation, "race men" and "the Talented Tenth," a time when Thurgood Marshall, then just another lawyer with a downtown office, could take out a small ad for his services.

"These people were very proud," says Philip J. Merrill, a collector of African-American history. "The people back then, they were working with the YWCA, the YMCA, the handicapped, the churches. They were doing things to uplift the community."

One of those people was Robert W. Coleman, a blind piano tuner whose "First Colored" directories, published from 1913 to 1946, were more than just listings of dentists, doctors, drug stores and teachers. They became an annual Who's Who of black Baltimore's movers and shakers, complete with photographs and biographical sketches of prominent citizens, population statistics, historical facts.

Yesterday, Merrill, along with Eva Slezak of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and Roberta C. Keets, Coleman's only surviving daughter, used the directories and other artifacts to present an overview of the man's life to a meeting here of the African American Museum Association.

Born in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 3, 1877, Robert Coleman was the youngest of four children. His father, Alexander Coleman, owned a two-chair barbershop with a Turkish bath in back. When the elder Coleman died, his wife, Mary, took over and raised the family.

Coleman grew into a handsome young man, light enough to pass for white but fiercely proud of who he was: a black man in turn-of-the-century America. A photo from Christmas 1899 shows him as a young dandy in a three-piece suit, walking stick in one hand, gloves in the other, his bowler sitting perfectly on his head.

A baseball accident gradually took his sight. He saw his first three daughters, but not the last three.

Roberta, now 80, said her father never learned Braille; he didn't want to take the time. There was too much else to do, too many dreams to make real.

One was to help the handicapped, a term he preferred to "crippled." He traveled around Baltimore, seeking information.

"He was increasingly disturbed by what he was hearing," said Slezak, who is in charge of the Pratt Library's African-American collection. "People were not being trained so they could have decent jobs, especially his own people. They were being shunted aside."

With the help of friends, Coleman created the Maryland Association for the Colored Blind on Oct. 15, 1913, "for the purpose of advancing the moral, religious and social development of Colored Adult Blind, and to extend to them sympathy and brotherhood."

That same year, he brought out the first of his directories. The entire Coleman family pitched in with the writing, proofreading, whatever needed to be done. Keets recalled the family phone ringing constantly as publication day drew near.

On delivery day, a friend drove Coleman around Baltimore to drop off copies at advertisers and outlets such as Fennell's Pharmacy. Sometimes, Coleman hired a horse and buggy at $3 for a six-hour day.

"He never stopped. He never faltered," Keets said of her father.

Through its listings of home and office addresses, Coleman's directories revealed enclaves of black professionals.

"Druid Hill Avenue was quite a notable street," said Keets. Asked how her father might react to the avenue's present condition, she replied, "I'm sure he wouldn't be happy. But I'm sure he would be one of those going about trying to do what was best for the city, trying to build things up."

The city has recognized Coleman by naming an elementary school for him.

For collector Merrill, the directories help dispel notions of what black life was like in the years before integration. A thriving community existed then, in many ways strengthened by the laws that restricted their freedom.

"What always gets me is that African-Americans, blacks, whatever, we don't think that we came from anything. I'm getting tired of that," said Merrill, 35. He is president of Nanny Jack and Co. of Baltimore.

"These were cosmopolitan people. One of the things you find is )) that they weren't stuck in a rut. What comes through is this high energy, this can-do attitude, which we seem to have lost in this country."

The directories were indispensable for both locals and out-of-towners.

"You have to keep in mind this was the time of segregation and unless you knew, this would tell you where the restaurants were, where the doctors were if you were sick," said Slezak, 50.

Merrill reinforced Slezak's point by holding up a guide to Negro hotels printed by the Afro-American.

"If you were traveling, this was your Bible," he said.

Coleman published about 500 to 1,000 copies each year. Initially, they sold for 15 cents. These days they are rare enough to bring more than $100 each on the collector's market, where items of Black Americana sell at a premium.

"These books were used. They were handled," said Merrill. "Who had the hindsight to save them?"

No complete set exists. Merrill has some. Keets has some. The Pratt has a few. Nine years are missing: 1914, 1916-1917, 1918, 1919-1920, 1922-1923, 1925-1926, 1929-1930, 1930-1931, and 1933-1934.

During yesterday's presentation, Merrill and Slezak also brought other bits and pieces of Coleman's world, many pulled from an old Coleman family trunk.

"I know we're on a mission here because I was finding [related] artifacts before I knew what the colored directories were all about," said Merrill, holding a sign from the Holland funeral home. "These things sort of fell into my lap."

The Holland home, it turns out, handled Coleman's funeral arrangements in 1946. For Merrill, the metal sign is one more connection to a world long gone.

Merrill and Slezak hope to put together a museum-quality exhibit based on the directories. For that they need grant money. Keets wants to see her father's directories copied and the lessons they contain given to the world.

Not for vanity's sake. That was never Robert Coleman's intent.

"Families could use them to educate their children and show them how responsible people were," she said. "I guess as time moves on, other things come into being and sort of take precedence, but if [the directories] are revived, they could be quite meaningful for folks."

At the very least, they offer keys to the past, evidence of lives lived by Coleman's simple creed: "Faith, Prayer, Good Works."

Pub Date: 8/23/97

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