Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Viola Johnson Coleman

I’ve recently completed a profile of Dr. Viola Coleman for Women of the Lone Star State. As with all our profiles, there is much more to tell about this noble woman than can be captured in the short span of the book.

Viola Johnson was born in 1919, in New Iberia, Louisiana. Her father was a logger (I didn’t know there was a logging industry in Louisiana – the things you learn when researching other stuff!). Her mother was a laundress, working for a local family. (It’s good to remember, when you’re feeling put upon, that there was a time when doing the laundry could be a full-time, hard-labor job.) I wasn’t able to determine whether Viola’s grandparents lived with her parents but Viola recalled her grandmother telling stories about life as a slave.

In Jim Crow Louisiana, Viola and her brother walked to the Negro school in New Iberia. She remembered being taunted and spat upon by white children riding the bus to their school. The schools for colored students were not as well equipped or staffed as the schools for white children, but Viola did well. She planned to go to nursing school, because she had been so impressed by the work of a Miss Lane who was the public health nurse in her neighborhood. However she apparently missed the deadline for applying to school, and wound up, instead, studying science at Southern Negro University in Baton Rouge. After graduation she became a science teacher at Grambling.

I was reminded of Viola’s story a couple of days ago when I heard someone talking about Rosa Parks on NPR. The writer commented that the legend of Rosa Parks says she was just tired the day she decided not to give up her seat – that this was a purely spontaneous act, when in fact the historic record shows that Rosa was involved in a grassroots effort to protest Jim Crow and that the bus seat episode was a plan of action prepared and waiting for an opportunity to be put into place. NPR's On the Media July 3, 2009:

Similarly, Viola’s historic challenge of Louisiana’s “separate but equal” plan for higher education was a deliberate and intentional effort. The NAACP was looking for good test cases to challenge LSU’s whites-only policy. Viola was asked and agreed to be that test case. She applied to LSU’s medical school knowing full well that they did not take black students, and that there was no Negro medical school at Southern to which they could send her. (A man, Charles Hatfield, applied to LSU’s Law School as part of the same challenge.) They knew that the state’s policy was to pay for qualified Negro candidates to attend programs in other states. Her brother, Jefferson, confirmed that the state paid for her to attend Meharry Medical College in Tennessee (“Where would we have gotten $500?” he said when asked.)

Viola’s son, Conrad, told me that his grandparents would not have allowed Viola to attend LSU if the state had relented—they were sure she would have been attacked and killed if she showed up on campus. The family received numerous death threats as the case wound its way through the courts (with Thurgood Marshall arguing the case for the NAACP). They lost in Louisiana, and by the time the case reached the Supreme Court, Viola had moved to Texas, so the Court dismissed the case without a finding.

In the meantime, Viola’s quiet (but not accidental) activism continued. Denied the loans she needed to establish her practice in New Iberia, she had her husband Raymond (a WWII veteran who had been a friend since high school) started for California, where they believed there would be more opportunities for them. They stopped in Fort Worth to visit a family friend – a doctor named Dorsey whom Conrad told me had been “run out of New Iberia” for his own efforts against Jim Crow. Dr. Dorsey had been solicited by the trustees of the new Midland Memorial Hospital, which had been built with the support of local black citizens with the assurance that they would be able to be treated there. Dr. Dorsey had declined, having by then built an established practice complete with a 30-bed hospital in Fort Worth. When Raymond and Viola stopped on their way to California, he encouraged them to contact the folks at Midland Hospital, who enthusiastically agreed to grant Dr. Coleman admitting privileges.

For the rest of her life, Dr. Coleman continued her work for equality there in Midland. She and another woman forced the integration of the hospital cafeteria by being the first in line for lunch and then sitting there, rather than in the “colored” dining area. The first day, they had the place to themselves. The next day, a few more black employees joined them. The third day, a couple of white employees ate there as well (I wish I knew if they sat nearby or as far away as possible). By the end of the week, the lunchroom was integrated.

In tributes in her later life and after her death, many people declared that Dr. Coleman was a major reason that Midland was spared most of the violence that characterized the civil rights movement in other southern cities. People reported that Viola organized a gradual integration of Midland restaurants by determining that she could organize street protests, and then going to the restaurant owners and extracting agreements that they would allow blacks to eat in their restaurants at certain times in exchange for not protesting. After a while, the times were relaxed and the restaurants were integrated.

It’s a good story, and certainly consistent with other actions Dr. Coleman participated in. Coleman’s son Conrad says neither he nor his older brother could remember any such plan. Still, they would have been very young and maybe would not have known. In fact, they did not know about the LSU case until after Viola died, when Conrad found a suitcase full of newspaper clippings in the closet. (Apparently it just never came up, because a number of high school students who had interviewed Dr. Coleman over the years had written about the case!) Conrad does remember meetings of neighborhood activists around the dining room table at the Coleman home, investigating the school desegregation issue and planning redistricting proposals to be presented to the School Board.

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Dr. Coleman challenged Midland Hospital’s de facto racial segregation. Patients who were able to pay by virtue of personal wealth or good insurance were placed on the fourth floor. Black patients were all placed in the basement. Dr. Coleman admitted a colleague of Raymond’s and directed that she be placed on the fourth floor in view of having excellent insurance (remember when school teachers used to have good health insurance?) When the hospital placed her patient in the basement, Dr. Coleman dramatically removed her to another hospital, and immediately challenged the trustees over the policy, which was removed. Although I cannot document this, I’m certain that this act was also carefully planned.

Throughout her long life, Dr. Viola Johnson Coleman kept up her efforts to bring about equal treatment of all citizens, regardless of their race or ethnicity. So it is more than a little ironic that her son, Conrad, is married to a white woman - an Afrikaner, in fact, whom he met through a nurse his mother had introduce him to when he was a patient in the hospital. (Conrad says his mother made sure that every single female employee was introduced to him during his four-month stay, apparently his parents had begun to despair of his ever marrying!) Conrad says when people asked his mother how she, a life-long activist and leader in the Black community, felt about her son’s choice, her response was characteristic: “Honey, if he loves her, I like her!”

A few years before she died, Dr. Coleman faced a terrible event. Two trusted employees of her clinic took advantage of her, stealing from her accounts and using her identity to establish and abuse credit. In court Dr. Coleman explained how devastating this was: the woman who had personally sent numerous needy young people through school and funded the lawyers who prosecuted the lawsuit to integrate the school district had been turned down by Sears in her attempt to purchase a washing machine. She was hurt, humiliated and out almost $400,000. But a local reporter overheard a conversation after the sentencing, when one of the two defendants came and apologized to her. Dr. Coleman touched the woman and said, quietly, “Thank you, Honey. God Bless You.” No anger, no recrimination – a blessing for those who have hurt you. The essence of the Christian faith that meant so much to her, and indeed the essence of the human dignity that was her life’s campaign.

Dr. Viola Johnson Coleman, quiet activist. What an inspiration!



A lovely piece, Sally! How did you connect with her son?

Jet said...

Great story, Sally. Excellent that you could talk to Conrad about his mother.

Sally said...

I went through a lot of "stalking" to try and connect with Dr. Coleman's children but ultimately asked the archivist at UTexas who is responsible for her papers - he contacted the family and asked them to get in touch with me. . . .