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The Late Howard W. Coles to be Commemorated with Special 119th Birthday Celebration at Downtown Central Library

In the Community: From Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County News Release

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The Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County joined daughter of activist, author, publisher, historian, and radio personality Howard W. Coles to celebrate what would be his 119th birthday on 2 – 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12 at the Kate Gleason Auditorium of the Bausch & Lomb Building of the Central Library, 115 South Ave. 

Members of the Coles family and loved ones honored the late pioneer—who was one of Rochester’s most successful Black men—and reflect on his life, legacy, and impact on the local community.

“We are pleased to join the Coles family to recognize and celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Howard W. Coles to the Rochester community,” said Patty Uttaro, the Director of the Rochester Public Library and Monroe County Library System. “Coles’ more than 40 years of service to this area has often been cited for his humanitarian, civic responsibility, and a trailblazer for racial injustice.”

Howard Wilson Coles was born on November 12, 1903, in Belcoda, New York. His family came to the Rochester area from Culpepper, Virginia in the 1880s. Howard was the grandson of the Reverend Clayton A. Coles, former “body servant” of Confederate General Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson and later founder of the Second Baptist Church of Mumford in the 1890’s. Howard was one of two sons born to Charles and Grace Coles.

Howard spent his childhood in Mumford, New York, and attended Scottsville High School. By his own admission, he was not interested in education and left at the age of 15 to “work and earn money to buy his own things.” He later regretted his decision and earned a diploma in June 1947 from East Evening High School in Rochester, New York.

After traveling throughout the Northeast working to earn wages as a hotel bellboy and a waiter in the 1920s, Coles returned to Rochester in the early 1930s and settled there for the remainder of his life.

In 1938, Coles became Rochester’s first Black radio personality at local radio station WSAY. Over the next 40 years, he and his wife Alma Kelso Coles developed several radio shows such as The Vignettes, The Gospel Hour, The Bronze Trombones, and The King Coles Show. These shows provided entertainment and served as a sounding board for relevant issues in the Black community. 

During his civic career, Coles served on the executive board of several community organizations such as the Virginia Wilson Interracial Helping Hand Center, the Frederick Douglass Non-Violent League, National Association for The Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Action for a Better Community and FIGHT, (Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today). He also ran for political office in the early 1950s as the Independent Party’s candidate for Supervisor of the Seventh Ward.

The event featured speakers, a special collections display, and light refreshments.