“The Valley is going to miss Vernell Coleman, a woman who transcended her pain to gain the respect of the powerful and the ordinary.” — Phoenix Gazette, March 31, 1990
“With a broad, freckle – wrinkling grin . . . and a gentle laugh,” Vernell Myers Coleman served as counselor, confidante, role model, and provider of help and wisdom to many blacks and Hispanics in West Phoenix. Tirelessly, she acted as a liaison between service organizations and the people of her community to provide them with housing, food, clothing, an education, and a sense of history.
She was born in Henderson, Texas, on August 28, 1918, to Berta and Roberts Myers. Her parents owned a restaurant and also brought in income through the family’s home laundry, where Vernell lent a hand. At age twelve she started working as a cook and housekeeper, and joined the Mount Hebron Baptist Church. Over the next eight years, she was active in various aspects of church life, serving as choir director, Sunday school teacher, and organizer of the Youth Choir for ages six through twelve.
In 1938 Vernell moved to Phoenix to help her sister who had become ill, and there she entered into the activities of the First Colored Baptist Church. When her sister graduated from school in 1941, Vernell returned to Texas, and in 1946 married Clifford Coleman. Three years later the couple moved to Phoenix.
When Vernell moved into the city’s Mathew Henson Housing Project in 1953, she had four children to support. It is not clear what happened to her husband. Crippling arthritis in her hands and legs, contracted in the early 1940s, kept her from holding a fulltime job, so she took in ironing and other small tasks. She also rejoined the First Colored Baptist Church (later renamed the First Institutional Baptist Church), where she helped with fundraisers and served as secretary of the Pastor’s Aid Society until her arthritis forced her to stop.
In the 1960s, Vernell became involved with the lives of her neighbors. Crime and violence raged in her housing project, and living conditions were substandard. Vernell committed herself to improving the place that would be home for the rest of her life. She helped organize a tenants’ council and served as president. During the project’s “turmoil years” in the late 1960s, Vernell was instrumental in toppling barriers between the community and police. Her constructive criticism as a member of the Mathew Henson Anticrime Committee improved police services, and the crime rate fell.
To improve living conditions in the apartments, Vernell took on the Phoenix Human Resources Department. In 1970 she organized a tenant strike; residents refused to pay rent without basic improvements such as the installation of cabinet doors, linoleum tile, and ventilation ducts. The strike was a success. Ten years later, Travis Williams, director of the Human Resources Department, praised her for bringing to light problems with the administration of city housing projects. The department responded by making appropriate changes. Vernell Coleman served as president of the tenants’ council for ten years, becoming known as the “Mayor of Projects.” She resigned in August of 1978 when she grew frustrated with “the people who sit back, reaping the benefits while she and the others work to make the project a better place to live.” Without her leadership, the council fell apart and soon officially disbanded.
Vernell Coleman was active outside the projects as well. For three years during the 1960s, she served as a commissioner of the Leadership and Education of the Advancement of Phoenix (LEAP). She sat on the board of directors of the Phoenix Urban League and the City of Phoenix Housing Advisory Board, and acted as area chairwoman and council treasurer for the Phoenix Human Resources Department. She also campaigned for the Seventh Avenue Clinic which provided free podiatry to the elderly and handicapped.
In the late 1970s, Vernell began to fix nutritious dinners for the elderly in her housing project. Expanding the service, she organized the St. Mary’s Food Bank and served on its board of directors. In 1982 she still spent every Wednesday cooking food for the program. Through all of her efforts, Mrs. Coleman brought political and social change. She never feared to go to the seats of power to get problems solved.
Once she had begun a project, she did not stop until she had reached her goal. Kindly and quietly, but firmly and persistently, she would go about her task. Former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt once noted that “most of the people who count in Phoenix … know Vernell.” Babbitt and Mrs. Coleman had become friends when they both served as Phoenix LEAP commissioners in the mid-1960s. During his first campaign for public office in 1974, she rode with the candidate as he toured Phoenix’s inner city, but she admonished him not to “make her a bunch of promises … you’ve got to listen.”
With all she did to help the poor and elderly of her community, her most noted accomplishment was the revival of the Juneteenth celebration in Phoenix. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when black slaves in Texas first learned about the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln had signed two and one-half years earlier. The celebrations in Texas were quite large, including the one in Vernell’s hometown of Henderson. She recalled the baseball games, parades through the town square, and her mother’s fish and fried chicken stand. Phoenix’s first Juneteenth occurred in 1911 after a visit by Booker T. Washington. Vernell had attended a small celebration by the First Colored Baptist Church in 1938 when she first came to Phoenix, but when Reverend Moten died in the mid 1940s, the tradition died with him. Believing that black people should learn of their history, Vernell, as head of the Mathew Henson Tenants’ Council, initiated a Juneteenth celebration for the residents of the housing project in 1968. She and other senior residents started small. They cooked the food, and the young people formed a baseball team to challenge the police team. The event was held at Dunbar School, with the city of Phoenix providing the booths. After Vernell’s resignation from the tenants’ council, she organized a committee to continue the Juneteenth commemoration. Every year the event grew larger. A nonprofit corporation, Juneteenth Tradition, Inc., developed under Vernell’s guidance, meeting throughout the year to plan the event. In 1980 Juneteenth Tradition, Inc. expanded its goals to raise scholarship money for underprivileged students. In publicizing the event, Vernell would speak with pride of scholarship recipients who had gone on to college and successful careers. She worked to make Juneteenth a multi-racial event, serving as honorary chairperson until shortly before her death.
Vernell Coleman’s many works did not go unnoticed. Between 1971 and 1988, she received numerous awards and honors from the State of Arizona, the City of Phoenix, businesses, and social organizations. In 1974 the Greyhound Corporation named her Phoenix Woman of the Year. The Spiritual Assembly of the Bahai’s of Phoenix in 1979 presented her with the first Willie L. Robertson Memorial Human Rights award for her efforts in finding housing for the poor and and encouraging youth to continue their education. To honor her years of volunteer work, Luke’s Men of St. Luke’s Medical Center and KPNX-TV of Phoenix gave her the 10th Annual Hon Kachina award. The following year she was named Woman of Distinction by the Women of Achievement group, a coalition of the Junior League of Phoenix, Meyer Inc., and Soroptimist International of Phoenix. As a final touch, on February 15, 1988, Mrs. Coleman received one of six Spirit of Arizona awards for serving her community in extraordinary ways.
For more than forty-years, Vernell Coleman diligently worked to improve the life of the poor in Phoenix. Despite being confined by her arthritis to crutches or a wheelchair, she stayed busy guiding various committees, talking with politicians, or working one-on-one with her neighbors. She gave endlessly of herself, not for recognition, but out of a sincere desire to improve conditions in her community. Through the Juneteenth celebration, this strong advocate of education found a way to support poor children as well as to remind blacks of their heritage.
“Mother” Coleman died on March 27, 1990. In tribute, her friends and associates remembered her love for others that enabled her to make people of high position listen and act. Her passing was a great loss to all Phoenicians.