Remembering Howard W. Coles: Journalist, Broadcaster, Rochester Civil Rights Icon

by DARIEN LAMEN


(ROCHESTER NY) -- Every November 12th, Joan Coles Howard throws a birthday party for her late father, Howard Wilson Coles.


As part of that commemoration, she invites members of the community to visit the archive containing her father's collected papers and writings at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.


This year, on the 117th anniversary of his birth, COVID-19 made in-person gathering impossible.


But Joan Coles Howard hopes the community will still take a moment to mark the occasion by reflecting on her father's legacy.


Joan Coles Howard during a recent visit to her father's archive (PHOTO: D LAMEN)

Howard Wilson Coles was born on November 12, 1903 in Monroe County, New York.


He is probably most remembered as founder and publisher of The Voice newspaper, which was later renamed the Frederick Douglass Voice. The paper ran from 1933 to 1996, making it the longest-running, Black-owned publication in Rochester history.


In the tradition of Black, Rochester-based publishers like Frederick Douglass before him, Coles used the newspaper to call attention to the critical issues facing people of African descent.


Coles was particularly concerned with issues of housing throughout his career. In 1938, for example, The Voice conducted a survey of housing conditions in Rochester's predominantly Black neighborhoods. That survey--the first of its kind--exposed the unsafe and unsanitary living conditions facing Black renters. It also informed an official NYS commission's report on the subject the following year.


Coles also used The Voice to call attention to the housing conditions facing the region's migrant farmworkers, many of whom were Black and came from the US South and the Caribbean. Coles worked with Black photographers to tell their stories, and to highlight their humanity.


Coles would go on to become an advocate for the construction of public housing, as well as for the expansion of Black homeownership. He was active in several local civil rights organizations, including the Frederick Douglass League, the NAACP, Action for a Better Community, and F.I.G.H.T.


Howard W Coles on WSAY Rochester, c.1950

One of the less-appreciated aspects of Howard W. Coles' life was his work as a radio broadcaster.


"King Coles" and his first wife Alma Kelso Coles were the first Black broadcasters on the air in Rochester. Starting in the 1930s and 40s, Coles hosted R&B, gospel, and public affairs programs on WSAY, where he eventually became a member of the advertising staff as well.



In 1996, Howard W. Coles "left this planet," as his daughter Joan often puts it. His papers have been catalogued and archived at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, where they wait for future generations.


"Frederick Douglass was a 19th century hero. Howard W. Coles was a 20th century hero," Joan Coles Howard says. "It is now the 21st century, and I am seeing our teens with questions and major interest in the beginnings of African American--Black--life in Rochester."


In the past year, Joan has facilitated several visits to the Howard Coles Collection by local teenagers who work as Youth History Ambassadors for Teen Empowerment.


COVID may have made it more challenging for her to do the kind of outreach she was used to doing on her father's birthday. But she's hopeful this new generation is beginning to appreciate, and renew, her father's work.


"They're putting their energies into finding answers, reviving, and respecting them. These teens will become our 21st century heroes and sheroes, and this is exhilarating," Joan Coles Howard says.


The Howard W. Coles Collection can be visited by appointment at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.


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DARIEN LAMEN is news director/producer for Reclaiming the Narrative. He can be reached at wxirnews@gmail.com.

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