Cleopatra Kay Coleman was a 5-year-old playing outdoors with her dolls when she heard a voice announce what would become her life’s mission.
“You are to remember and to restore,” it said.
Coleman told the audience at the Spotsylvania Sunday School Union’s annual Black History Celebration Saturday that she was surprised to hear those words because she was by herself and nobody else was around. She said that she heard the voice repeat the command twice more before running inside to tell her grandmother.
“Well, child,” her grandmother responded, “that’s just God telling you what you ought to do.”
Coleman took her explanation to heart, and developed a passion for studying history and sharing it with others. She was honored at the celebration for her efforts by the Spotsylvania Sunday School Union and by the Spotsylvania Branch of the NAACP Branch, which declared her its Citizen of the Year.
“I share this story to show you the root, the foundation of my passion for history,” Coleman said. “I have a passion for history, and that’s what I’ve tended to do. To God be the glory. To God be the glory. When you are tasked with something, and you say ‘yes’ to that something, you don’t have to worry. I don’t have a degree in history, for instance. You don’t have to worry too much about what’s going to follow. Then you can become that. You can do that.”
Coleman’s lengthy list of achievements cited at the celebration date to 1988, when she retired and assumed the task of restoring and preserving the Old Port Royal School. It’s one of 22 one-room schools for African–American children in Caroline County, and was used and maintained by the Port Royal Colored School League from 1924 until 1959 when children were bused to a modern school in Bowling Green.
She helped find period appropriate artifacts and furnishings for the building, which is now a museum where school children and adults can experience living history. She also helped develop its lesson plan for fourth-graders, who can experience what it was like to have attended school there.
Shortly after finishing that work, Coleman co-founded Historic Port Royal Inc., a nonprofit historical society for the old Colonial port town where she lives in a house that was once visited by George Washington. Today Historic Port Royal operates the Port Royal Museum of American History, the Port Royal Museum of Medicine and the Port Royal Portrait Gallery & Museum. She also wrote a booklet on the African American Cemetery in Caroline.
Coleman’s other efforts include helping to found and open John J. Wright Educational Center and Museum, and she worked with the county, state and National Park Service to create the county’s African American Heritage Trail. She’s also known for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman, the Maryland slave who followed the North Star at night to freedom in Pennsylvania, then went on to rescue approximately 70 slaves, including family and friends.
“That woman just fascinated me,” Coleman said. “Her courage, her perseverance, her faith. She was a very strong Christian woman.”
The Rev. Otis Kay, pastor of First Mount Zion Baptist Church at Sparta, singled out 10 other African–Americans during his keynote speech at the celebration. All were inventors whose creations have helped to change the world.
They included Thomas Jennings, who developed the process known today as dry cleaning and became the first African–American to receive a patent for his idea; Mark Dean, who holds three of nine patents for being the co-creator of the IBM personal computer released in 1981; and Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C. J. Walker. An African–American entrepreneur, she was considered to be the wealthiest African–American businesswoman and wealthiest self-made woman in America at the time of her death in 1919.
The event, which drew about 75 people, also included singing of “Life Every Voice,” a mime presentation by Joshua Hale and a poetry reading by Betty Dill–Parker and Moe Petway. Afterward, a group of students from throughout the county divided themselves into four teams and took turns playing basketball in the former school’s gym. During a break, Petway, Billy Banks, Jakuta Williams and Dwight Hargrove talked to them about how they came together to have fun, and the how they can apply the idea of teamwork in their daily lives.