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Joseph E. Coleman papers


Held at: African American Museum in Philadelphia [Contact Us]701 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA, 19106

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

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Joseph E. Coleman (1922-2000) was the first African-American president of Philadelphia [Pa.] City Council. Serving in this capacity for 12 years from 1980 to 1992, he "presided over a sea change that transformed the council from an unruly gang to a body near equal with the mayor."

Born and raised in Mississippi, Coleman was educated as a chemist and then as a lawyer, earning his law degree from Temple University. A Democrat, Coleman entered the political scene in Philadelphia beginning in 1968 when he served on the city's planning commission. Coleman was first elected in 1972 as a councilman representing the Eighth District. As councilman, he was significantly involved with the Philadelphia Urban Homestead Program--a municipal program council passed in 1973 to serve as a comprehensive resource center for the rehabilitation of vacant properties by homesteaders.

Coleman started his term as council president in 1980 shortly after the Abscam scandal, and was thus charged with cleaning up council's image in its wake. (Abscam was an FBI sting operation that eventually came to focus on public corruption ultimately leading to the conviction of numerous politicians throughout the country, including several congressmen and members of the Philadelphia City Council, including Coleman's predecessor, Council President George Schwartz.) Coleman's time as council president coincided with the administration of former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, the city's first black mayor. Goode's administration was tainted by the controversial MOVE police action and house bombing in 1985 that devastated several city blocks and killed 11 people.

While working to improve Philadelphia City Council's image, Coleman also focused his efforts to increase the body's oversight of mayoral projects and plans. Under his leadership, council's authority expanded considerably, becoming more of an independent legislative body rather than just another agency of the administration. Although viewed by many of his colleagues as soft-spoken and amiable, "Coleman, along with fellow council members John Street, David Cohen and Lucien Blackwell, gained the sobriquet "the gang of four," from disgruntled colleagues who felt they were left out of key deliberations with the Goode administration."

Coleman was the author of Another Chosen People--American Negroes (1961) as well as several unpublished works. Upon retiring in 1992, Joseph Coleman lived quietly with his wife, Jessie Bryant Coleman, until 1997 when his daughter Stephanie Coleman Epps was shot to death in front of her two children by a former lover. Joseph Coleman died after a lengthy illness on the last day of the millennium, leaving behind his wife, son, and a large extended family.

Several organizations throughout the city of Philadelphia have recognized Coleman and his legacy. The Community Education Centers, Inc. named its Philadelphia-area treatment center after him. Coleman Hall provides an array of residential reentry treatment services designed to reduce recidivism. In 2002, the Philadelphia Free Library system's Northwest Regional Library, located in Germantown, was renamed the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional Library. Albright College also created a scholarship award in Coleman's honor. The Distinguished Joseph E. Coleman Award provides financial assistance ranging from $8,000 to $12,000 to African-American students who show academic excellence as well as community and/or extracurricular involvement.


Quoted text from: McDonald, Mark. "The End Of An Era: Joseph Coleman Dies At 78". The Philadelphia Inquirer. January 3, 2001. Accessed October 30, 2013.

This collection consists of various materials that document Coleman's time as a Philadelphia politician, including his time as a councilman and council president. Materials include drafts for speeches, articles, testimonies, photographs (many are unidentified), correspondence, campaign ephemera, and scrapbooks with clippings and photographs.

Also in the collection are Coleman's writings, including literary efforts he pursued during retirement, such as corrected typescript drafts of novels "The Rebellious Southerner" (1994) and "My Darling Caesar" (1994), as well as "The Reflections and Speeches of a Black Politician" authored by Coleman and W. Collins Pugh (1994). There are also reprints of Coleman's scientific publications and patents, 1951.

Accession AAMP.G94.019.

Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2012-2014 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.

In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact African American Museum in Philadelphia directly for more information.

African American Museum in Philadelphia
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Faith Charlton through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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