The first time John Price heard the name Warren C. Coleman, it came from the lips of a little elderly woman in his office at city hall.
Price, 76, grew up in California and New Jersey, and the proposal to rename U.S. 601 as Warren C. Coleman Boulevard meant little more than paperwork for his job at the city planning office.
But the lady spun such a tale he couldn’t help but be drawn in.
Warren C. Coleman was a former slave, she said. He sold rags and bones in the beginning, but by the end of his life, he owned 100 houses in Concord. He had a variety store in the Morris building on Union Street, where he sold cakes, candies, and quail. Town folk would wave as he rode by in a carriage pulled by a team of white horses, whose eyes were as pink as a hare’s nose. But most importantly, he was the owner of the first black-owned mill in the nation, and everyone, from New York City to Los Angeles, called it “the experiment.”
On Feb. 18, Price will tell the audience how the experiment turned out, and much more, when he presents “An Evening with Warren C. Coleman,” at 5:30 p.m. in the Concord Public Library on Union Street.
Price said in the beginning he didn’t take much stock in the woman’s story. “Nah. This is just a pipe dream, ” he recalled of that day in 2001. “It all turns out, it was true.”
The Concord Public Library has enough books, records and newspaper clippings to convince anyone.
On May 8, 1904, The New York Times sadly recounted the nation’s loss in Coleman’s obituary.
“In the death of Warren C. Coleman last month at Concord, N.C., the South lost the moving spirit in one of its most interesting experiments – a cotton mill owned and operated entirely by negroes.”
You may have seen Price play Coleman before. When a local troupe decided to honor historical town figures, Price dressed in the vest and long coat commonly worn by Coleman and stood outside the Morris building where his store once operated.
“The people would come and they would stop, and you had to expound as to who you were,” he said. “That hooked me.”
Price has had plenty of experience as an actor in theater, film, and commercials. He’s been Hoke Colburn in “Driving Miss Daisy,” had a small part in the film “Blood Done Sign My Name,” and has been the friendly farmer in the crop field and the helpful grandfather at the freezer case in several local grocery store commercials.
But the role of Coleman dislodged a desire to revive history, for himself and for others. To become characters like Coleman gives him a perspective that was real to most of his peers, but not to him.
“I have a unique situation in this country,” he said. “I never lived in a segregated neighborhood. (I have) never gone to a segregated school. By the time I had joined the service, it was integrated. I’ve never had to get on the back of a bus. I just had no concept of what it was like to live in a society like the South.”
“An Evening with Warren C. Coleman” is a 45-minute performance, free and open to the public. Details: www.cabarruscounty.us/library.
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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