“My grandmother, Luella Coleman, came to the Vineyard as a domestic and through perseverance and vision, she bought a house. And I spent every single summer here from my first birthday in 1940. I’ve only missed one summer in 84 years, being on this Island. I began writing little vignettes about how we got here, the story of my grandparents, and it grew into a book, ‘The Place My Heart Calls Home.’”
Jocelyn Coleman Walton has lived her life in dual worlds: One world on the mainland — in Boston, Baltimore, and New Jersey, and the other of the Vineyard — in the Highlands of Oak Bluffs. One for most of the year; the other only for summers. One very real, the way life is. The other, the way life could be.
For Jocelyn, living that life was act one. Writing about it has been act two.
Raised in Roxbury, Mass., Jocelyn was the oldest child and first in her generation to go to college. At Morgan State in Baltimore, one of the prominent HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), she got more than a college education; she got an education in racial reality that she’d never had. She grew up in what she calls a “potpourri…The house to our left was Italian; the house next door was Jewish; to my right was Swedish; around the corner was Portuguese, and then Black… We played together, we were all equal, and we were not intimidated by people of a different color or a different background.” But in Baltimore, still-segregated in the 50s and 60s, discrimination was plain to see.
“The campus was across the street from the Northwood Shopping Center. My very first day at school, in 1957…I wanted something to eat. So I went up to Northwood, to this little ice cream shop and I ordered a frappe. Being from Boston, they didn’t know what I was talking about. So I described a frappe and they fixed it. A Black woman waited on me, and I started to drink it, and she said, ‘You can’t drink that in here.’ I’m like, what? I left the store and never went back there again.” At the time, Blacks were not allowed to go to the movie theater. This was in the era of sit-ins but Jocelyn and her friends didn’t do that. A college friend, Barbara, who was Black but looked like she could be white, went into the theater with another student, Basil, who was white and Greek. Jocelyn and other Black patrons lined up behind them but they were barred. We said, “You just let two people in and one is Black.” They had technically “integrated” the theater, but their movement stopped at the door, literally.
This wasn’t the first time Jocelyn had been involved in a protest. In high school, as the first Black student elected president of the senior class, when the school changed the cafeteria menu, Jocelyn led a food strike. And she notes, in a class of 300, that was only 10 percent Black, virtually 100 percent of the students joined the boycott. And the menu was changed back.
College opened Jocelyn’s eyes not only to prejudice, but to pride. “I always had pride in being a Coleman, but before Morgan State … I’d never been immersed in Black culture. We were not ashamed to be African-American, but you didn’t talk about it, and you didn’t show your pride in it. But Morgan just immersed you in it.” She recalls, “…my classmates would sing gospel songs, just walking down the corridor of a dormitory,” songs Jocelyn had never heard before and she felt, “Oh, yes, I can understand that. I feel that.”
She carried that impact with her when the next summer came and it was time to go to her Grandmother Coleman’s home in Oak Bluffs — Coleman Corners. Like Morgan, it was a Black life. But rather than confrontation, conflict or gospel hymns, it was a place of escape, of comfort, of people like yourself, of home. Morgan had deepened her sense of herself and her roots. Deepened but discomforting. And different.
So different, in fact, that after her first year at Morgan, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go back. Maybe it was too different. Maybe it wasn’t for her. Her mother cleared up her maybes. “Your sister’s coming in September, so you’re going back.” Jocelyn laughs, “So I went back…and then I just fell in love with it.”
Well, not in love immediately, in the classroom. “Growing up, I worked for a Black doctor in his office…and I decided that’s what I wanted to do in my life. I’d never had a Black instructor after first grade, so I never thought about doing anything related to teaching. Working in Dr. Benn’s office, I decided to be a medical secretary.” Jocelyn started as a science major, but when it came to dissecting first a frog — she couldn’t tell a tendon from a nerve — and then a cat — she was afraid of cats, even dead ones. She knew it was time to change her major. She switched to mathematics. The logic, the neatness, the organization, and clarity of math matched Jocelyn perfectly. Now she could study to be what had been missing most of her childhood, a Black teacher, and even more rare, a Black math teacher.
Through college, sophomore year, junior year, senior year, when summer came, it was always back to the Vineyard, but usually only for a handful of weeks because Jocelyn had to earn money for college. As welcoming as the Island was, the only jobs young Black kids could get were as 50-cent-an-hour babysitters or hotel maids. She had to spend the rest of the summer in Boston working in department stores. And then back to Morgan and math.
“By then, everybody was going into computers. In fact, one of my friends who was a year ahead of me was part of that group, the Hidden Figures (the now-famous Black women who did complex computations for NASA).” But computers weren’t for Jocelyn. During her senior year, “part of the curriculum was that you spent six weeks in a classroom, under a mentor. And the first day I was allowed to teach in the classroom, I knew I was in love. I was just so energized and so excited about teaching and sharing mathematics and being a role model. I knew that was where I wanted to be…there and Martha’s Vineyard.”
Through all the years and careers…through college, after college, through teaching in the still-segregated Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, through marriage at the Methodist Church at the Tabernacle in the Campground, through earning her master’s in math (by way of a National Science Foundation scholarship), through joining the newly integrated faculty at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School to build the math curriculum (and via math curricula, learning “sequencing,” which would have a profound impact on her writing life…more on that later), then becoming a math supervisor at another school, through having her children, through moving to New Jersey, teaching again, then a K-12 math/science supervisor in Montgomery Township school district, then director of curriculum and instruction (more sequencing) in the Madison Borough district, through divorce, then out of administration, again a math supervisor at Plainfield High School, through remarrying (she met her husband-to-be at Edgartown Beach), through retiring — sort of — interrupted by consulting, building a home on the family Vineyard property…through it all, there was one constant — returning to Coleman Corners every summer. Every summer but one. Her first husband didn’t love the Island, so they stayed in Baltimore one summer. One summer when Jocelyn was miserable. That wasn’t the reason for the divorce, but suffice to say, Jocelyn never missed another Vineyard summer.
After finally retiring fully, Jocelyn and her second husband moved back to Maryland to spend time with her grandchildren, six months in Maryland, six months on the Vineyard. In between grandchildren-time, she took classes at the local senior center. “It was $30 a semester…to do some things I had been interested in: one in painting, the other writing, the third exercise.” Over the years, she gave up exercise, she still paints a bit, but she took a class called Memoir Writing for Senior Citizens. “I was writing little stories about my family that I would read to the class. I called us the Coleman Tribe — the five grandkids on my father’s side of the family — about the fun we had and the trouble we got into.” Jocelyn’s writing sparked encouragement from her classmates, ‘Oh, I wanna be a Coleman kid’ or ‘Can you tell us more about this person or that one?’ “I started writing more about my grandparents’ history, and my mom’s story, and my dad’s story, and someone said, ‘This is a book.’ I thought, ‘Really? Where do I go from here?’”
Sequencing. Yes, the sequencing she’d mastered to guide the building of a curriculum would prove to be a continuing thread, first in math, then in her writing. “If you don’t ever learn the basics of algebra, you can’t do geometry, and so on… That whole process of developing curriculum and helping people understand that linear sequence, the value of having the basics in order to get to something later on, was very important to me. That helped ease my understanding of the importance of sequencing in writing.”
“I started putting a story sequence together, figuring out how it all fit.” She had an instructor who helped her edit, and friends who read her work for “clarity” and “verity” — the authenticity of her writing. Piece by piece, she assembled the Coleman story.
“We lived in the second floor apartment, and my mother rented out the third floor apartment and my grandparents were on the first floor.” Her grandfather was a presser in the garment district of Boston; her grandmother took “whatever work she could find.” To say Granny Coleman, born in 1896, was forward-thinking, is drastic understatement. Jocelyn says of her grandmother, “Her own mother was Swedish; her father was African-American, so she grew up in Boston shunned by both groups. The Blacks called her poor white trash, and the whites called her the ‘n’ word.” Jocelyn says Granny “knew the only place where she was safe and loved and valued was with her family.” So, beginning in 1927, her grandparents began to go to the Vineyard, and at first they rented, just a room, then an entire house. “My grandmother worked as a domestic all summer, and my grandfather came on weekends. When a property became available on Myrtle Avenue in 1944, Granny bought it from Manuel Gonzalez…by signing my grandfather’s name to the paperwork…and she didn’t tell him, because…he never would have done such a thing.” (The original Coleman house was next to Dorothy West’s home, but well before she arrived on the literary scene.) Mr. Gonzalez had more lots at the end of Myrtle Avenue and he told her, “I know you’ll pay me; and I want you to have first dibs on the other lots.” Jocelyn’s grandmother not only bought the rest of the lots on one side of the street, but on the other side too. Looking back, she said, “I had to do it because I’ve got five kids here all summer long.” She was planning for the future; eventually the properties would be inherited by the next generation. As the family expanded, so did Coleman Corners.
Story by story, Jocelyn assembled the entire Coleman family saga, the history, the family branches, the roots, life on and off the Island in her book, “The Place My Heart Calls Home.”
“It’s been quite a journey. I’m very proud. It’s the story I want my grandchildren to be able to always go back to.” She says, “Everybody in the family has a copy of the book,” and she laughs, “I can tell by conversations, nobody’s read it all…but that’s okay, because every now and then, they’ll pick it up.”
Is Jocelyn still writing, still chronicling the family and their latest stories? She confesses, “I did, up until COVID. I have not been since.” But she may go back to writing soon. There’s no shortage of anecdotes and milestones in the family, including her own accomplishments. Just this past year, as co-chair with Lisa Pimentel of the Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition’s Education Committee, Jocelyn and Lisa presented the case — Honoring the Native People of Noepe — to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, adopted unanimously by the all-Island school committee. Jocelyn said at the presentation, “..to ensure every child gets the education they deserve in an environment that allows them to feel safe and valued, we have chosen to begin with the first people of this Island — the Wampanoags.” Granny Coleman would be proud.
Jocelyn, her children, and grandchildren have carried on the family traditions of facing adversity, and educating others. Her son, Kyle Williams, like his mother, has been an educator, teacher, principal and consultant. At the time that George Floyd was murdered, Kyle’s two oldest sons were playing college basketball, one at University of Pennsylvania, the other at Gettysburg. After attending a Black Lives Matter protest, Kyle’s son Elijah became offended by some of the unsympathetic responses to his social media posts by his team captain. Kyle contacted the team’s coach, talking about the tension and anger he was about to encounter, and suggested the coach watch Jeffrey Robinson’s video, The History of Race in America. The coach watched it and said he had no comprehension of what had been done, systemically, to African-Americans. Almost the same thing happened with the coach at Penn. That led to a Zoom call with over one hundred coaches. And that eventually led to what is now a powerful national communication on race and reality that Kyle leads called A Long Talk About The Uncomfortable Truth. It’s been seen by many thousands of people and was presented on the Vineyard this past summer.
Again and again, the legacy of the Coleman family grows. What began at Coleman Corners has spread to all corners of the country and the world. Jocelyn Coleman Walton said, as she began to talk about this article, “I’m not sure I’m really a second act.” Perhaps she’s right. She’s much more. Jocelyn Coleman Walton is living history.