Carolyn Coleman, civil rights trailblazer and Guilford County Commissioner, dies at 79

Carolyn Q. Coleman, a trailblazing civil rights activist and Guilford County commissioner, died late Wednesday. She was 79.

Carolyn Coleman

Coleman represented East Greensboro and Pleasant Garden on the board for nearly 20 years and was the first Black woman to chair the board. As a child she lived through racial segregation in Savannah, Georgia and was among the first three students arrested in sit-in protests in that city. Those experiences informed her work as an activist and elected official for the rest of her life, which included nearly 30 years on the national staff of the NAACP and stints as secretary to the NAACP National Board of Directors and vice president of the North Carolina State NAACP.

Coleman’s continuing work was recently recognized by the North Carolina Association of Black County Officials, which presented her its Frederick Douglass Award for her work with Guilford County’s Feeding the Communities program. That program provided more than 8,000 boxes of food to families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic between December of 2020 and July of 2021.

I worked with Coleman for several years when I covered the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, Greensboro City Council and North Carolina General Assembly for Greensboro’s daily newspaper, the News & Record.

As a young reporter assigned to cover my first county commissioners meeting, Coleman called me over to her spot on the dais before it got started.

“Mr. Killian,” she said. “I hope you won’t quote only the white commissioners like other reporters do.”

Now, this would have been difficult to do even if I were so inclined. At the time Melvin “Skip” Alston, a virtual quote-machine, was chair of the board. Coleman and Bruce Davis, two other Black commissioners, were also very vocal and quotable.

But this is what is known in the biz as “throwing an elbow.” She was putting the new reporter on notice, letting me know I was dealing with someone who would read my stories closely, would be on the lookout for any racial bias, and would not be a bit shy about talking about it.

In my experience, Coleman never dealt with any reporter or outlet by freezing them out, even if she didn’t like what she read. She would call you up to discuss a story, ask why you wrote something a certain way, make sure her voice — and the voice of those she represented — was reflected.

As a young reporter, working with her made me better at my job. It forced me to think more carefully about my work, how I did it, who read it, why they read it, why every word mattered. Over my years at the daily paper she would call me up or pull me aside when she didn’t like a story, when she did, when she thought there was something I should know, occasionally when she just wanted to gossip.

In my time covering the commissioners in Guilford County, I watched the board shift from a liberal Democratic majority to a conservative Republican one. Coleman was the same commissioner in both circumstances. She was also the same fiery, funny and relentless woman whether she was acting as a Guilford County commissioner, in her work with the NAACP or in advocacy of her alma mater, N.C. A&T.

In 2010, I interviewed Coleman after she was part of a protest in Raleigh that resulted in more than a dozen arrests.

Coleman, then 68 and using a cane or walker to get around, was on hand to protest the Wake County school board’s decision to end its student-assignment diversity policy. The policy required some students to be bused to schools farther from their own neighborhoods to achieve more racial and economic diversity in schools.

Coleman told me she saw the change as part of an erosion of progress in school desegregation and she wanted to stand with student activists there against it.

“Separate is never equal,” she said. “I have seen that over and over, from my own education to working across the South with the NAACP on education for many years now. When you have people separated by race, by socioeconomic class. You end up with poor, underperforming schools in certain neighborhoods. Children don’t deserve that.”

Coleman didn’t get arrested that day, but not for lack of trying.

“I think between looking at me and hearing from people I was a county commissioner, they just didn’t think it was a good idea,” Coleman said. “They thought there would just be more stories out of that.”

“I was ready,” Coleman said. “I did feel like if these students were going to be arrested, maybe I should go too.”

That sort of boots-on-the-ground dedication to her people and beliefs won Coleman respect from the political left and right and prominent Democrats and Republicans are mourning her death today.

“Not once in her remarkable life did she slow down in her advocacy and commitment to supporting equity, inclusion and tolerance,” her friend Skip Alston, now chair of the Guilford County Commissioners once again, told Triad’s Fox 8. “Her passing came as a surprise to us all. I was shocked to receive the call yesterday to join her family at the hospital so that we could spend time with her during her last hours. We are all grieving for the loss of our friend right now.”

“This is such a loss to this board, the Greensboro community and the entire state,” Carlvena Foster, the board’s vice chair, told Fox 8. “She was a true warrior, civil rights activist and pillar in the community. She will be deeply missed.”

Alan Branson, a conservative former Guilford County Commissioner who served with Coleman for years, took to Facebook to praise her life and mourn her passing.

“It is with great sorrow that we have lost a trailblazer in Guilford County,” Branson wrote. “My prayers are with Mrs. Coleman’s family and friends. It was an honor to serve on the Board of Commissioners with her for eight years. The words I will always remember her saying are, ‘I will pray for you Mr. Branson,’ and then she would chuckle. Rest In Peace Mrs. Carolyn Coleman.”

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Carolyn Coleman, civil rights trailblazer and Guilford County Commissioner, dies at 79