Dr. Edwin Leon Coleman II left an enduring legacy at the University of Oregon and in the Eugene community as an educator, musician, civil rights activist, writer, community and campus organizer, and perhaps most importantly, a friend and advocate of students, faculty and community members of color. His passing on Friday, January 20, shocked circles across the state of Oregon. When it comes to civil rights and activism on the University of Oregon campus and in Eugene, Professor Coleman stands out as one of the most impactful Oregon faculty members of the late 20th century.
Coleman was born on March 17, 1932 in El Dorado, Arkansas. Growing up in the Jim Crow South had a profound impact on Coleman’s understanding of racism and inspired him to fight for equality for all who were oppressed. In an interview with Register-Guard journalist Randi Bjornstad on June 19, 2016, Coleman remarked on his childhood in the South saying, “I remember black people couldn’t vote because they couldn’t afford to pay the poll tax… I remember going to the movies and having to sit in the ‘crow’s nest’ and being in line at the store and the white people pushing in ahead. I remember if a white person came on the street, the black people would have to step aside, even off the curb.” By World War II, Coleman and his family moved to Alameda, California in the Bay area—where they lived in a racially segregated housing project. Coleman attended predominantly white schools in San Francisco.
After high school graduation, Coleman began his college career at San Francisco City College while also enlisting in the Air Force reserves, feeling compelled to serve due to the conflict in Korea. Coleman was stationed in Spokane where he rapidly rose through the ranks and began playing jazz shows in the Spokane area. Coleman’s musical talents were well known and he became an accomplished performer, which included a performance with Ella Fitzgerald and touring with Peter, Paul and Mary. It was through a love of music that Edwin met his wife Charmaine. They were married on December 1, 1962 and remained married until his death last week. The couple eventually had two boys, Callan and Edwin III. Coleman also became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, even having the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King Jr. While touring with various musicians in the 1960s and 1970s, Coleman faced overt racism daily. Quite often, Coleman and his bandmates were not allowed to stay in white-only hotels and had to sleep in their vehicle. After two years in the Air Force Reserve, Coleman finished his undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University, having switched from business, where he complained of racism from his instructors, to theater. Coleman then taught theater at San Francisco State and Chico State.
Coleman moved to Eugene in 1966 and earned a PhD in English from the University of Oregon in 1971. Coleman was hired that same year as a full-time English instructor at the University of Oregon. For the first time, Coleman introduced black literature to the University of Oregon and became a priceless advocate for black students and staff. In 1994, the University of Oregon interviewed several of Coleman’s colleagues and students while putting together a history of Coleman’s career. Director of Ethnic Studies Department Sharon Sherman said of Coleman, “He was very instrumental in having African American literature taught in the English department. He got ethnic studies off the ground and kept it afloat during times of no director and less-than-wonderful budget support. I know that he has been a magnet for a lot of black students… Because of that, and because for many years Ed has been the only person teaching about these issues, and because he was so visible with the Black Student Union, black students came to him and would come and talk to him about anything… He is dedicated to his teaching, dedicated to the community and dedicated to fighting racial equality.” One of Coleman’s students, Andrea Debnam said, “The University of Oregon campus is predominantly white campus, there are a lot of issues that you deal with being here. We don’t have very many African Americans as students, but definitely not as professors. I think he is what we need as African American students, he is a positive role model.”
In the same series of interviews from 1994, Coleman was asked several questions regarding civil rights and Eugene. Coleman said, “The civil rights movement and all the pain is still a dream, I’m most concerned with the religious right. People of color in Eugene are still quite invisible.” In more recent interviews, Coleman agreed that small improvements had been made, yet he recognized that Eugene lacked diversity, and even today, can be an incredibly isolated place if you are a person of color.
Coleman played an exceptionally impactful role on the Oregon campus and throughout the community for well over 40 years. Even after retirement, Coleman remained active on the music circuit and was a huge supporter of student groups like the Black Student Union and Black Student Task Force, participating in lectures and events regularly. For decades, Coleman was one of the leading voices for African Americans in Eugene. His legacy paved the way and helped to build the foundation for black students and staff that will continue to follow in his footsteps.
By Joseph Foley, Student Research Assistant