Discover the Past
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Howard Coles (1903-1996) was born in Mumford, New York, and raised in Belcoda, New York, a rural area whose black population came from Culpepper County, Virginia. Coles attended the Rural School in Mumford and later attended West High School (now Wilson), in Rochester, where he was the only black male student. Coles left high school before graduating and got a job as an usher at the Eastman School of Music. In 1930, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a waiter. He later moved to Albany and eventually ended up in Chicago, where he worked for The Defender, a prominent national black newspaper. Coles returned to Rochester, parlaying his experience at The Defender into his own publication, The Frederick Douglass Voice, which he founded in 1934 and ran until his death on December 10, 1996.

In 1938, Coles became Rochester's first African American radio announcer. He produced the first survey of African American housing conditions in New York State and published the City Directory of Negro Business and Progress, 1939-1940. In 1941, Coles published The Cradle of Freedom, chronicling the history of African Americans in western New York. As a real estate agent, he helped fight discrimination against black homebuyers and worked to improve housing conditions in the city. An advocate for Rochester's black community, he promoted black-owned businesses and helped establish organizations like FIGHT (Freedom, Integration/Independence, God, Honor, Today) and Action for a Better Community, and he served as president of the local chapters of the National Negro Congress and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In this interview, Coles discusses the purpose of his newspaper, The Frederick Douglass Voice, and the challenges that blacks have faced in Rochester. He explains that the goal of The Frederick Douglass Voice has been to achieve better housing, schools, and jobs for African Americans, and to support education reform to include more black history. Coles notes that the paper also sought to promote support for the NAACP, put more blacks in professional and legal positions, and foster voter participation. Coles recalls that employment opportunities for black men during the 1930s were limited to menial service jobs like shining shoes, carrying luggage, waiting tables, and opening doors. Similarly, black women could only get work as domestic servants. Coles discusses the lack of equal housing in Rochester and his work with the Frederick Douglass League, FIGHT, and the U.S. Department of Housing to repair homes and create more opportunities for black families in the city.