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Coleman, Mary 1946–

Mary Coleman 1946

State politician, organization leader

At a Glance

Got Potitics in Her System

Ascended the Ranks at NBCSL


Ive always just wanted to do things to make people happy and that is how I spent my life: doing things for others, Mary Coleman told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). That desire took her from small-town Mississippi to a position in the administration of President Jimmy Carter to the presidency of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL). Her rise to this post prompted Ebony magazine to name Coleman one of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans of 2003. The praise did not phase Coleman, who takes her own phone calls and calls constituents by name. Instead she pressed on, doing things for others, armed not only with her lifelong convictions, but also with legislative power.

Born Mary Hoskins on July 25, 1946, Coleman grew up in the tiny town of Noxapater, Mississippi, located in the northeast corner of the state. Her parents, Harvey and Mable Hoskins, both worked full-time to raise Coleman, her two sisters, and five brothers. My father was a factory worker and my mother worked in the local school cafeteria, Coleman told CBB. Though that school was just a few minutes walk from the familys front door, Coleman couldnt attend. When I was growing up schools were still segregated, so we rode a total of 18 miles round trip to school everyday, rode a bus, she told CBB. Despite this indignity, Coleman found inspiration in school. She told CBB that the biggest influence on her young life was my elementary school teacher, Leonora Welch. She took an interest in me and encouraged me when I was the little poor girl. Back when I was growing up, if you were light-skinned and had long hair you would be the teachers pet. Well, I wasnt light-skinned and didnt have long hair. That wasnt me. But she took an interest in me because I was a smart child. Coleman was also influenced by the Baptist church. My mother also was very, very active in the church, Coleman told CBB. That activism filtered down to Coleman. I have a strong commitment to helping to others, always have, she told CBB.

After graduating from Louisville Colored High School in 1965, Coleman went on to Tougaloo College, a historically black college located in Tougaloo, Mississippi. She enrolled as an English major with plans to become a teacher. But that never happened, Coleman told CBB. When I went to Tougaloo, my first year there wasnt what I expected, so I left and went to California and went to Los Angeles Trade Technical College in 1966. At the time, one of Colemans sisters was living in California and the state offered free tuition at community colleges. I got my degree there for next to nothing, Coleman told CBB. After earning an associates degree in business in 1968 Coleman returned to Mississippi and her grade school sweetheart, Cayle Coleman. I knew him all my life. We went to school together since the fifth grade, she told CBB. The couple were married later that year. Coleman also returned to Tougaloo College, both as a student and as an employee. I started off in 1968 as a secretary, and then in 1972 I moved to book store manager and purchasing agent for the entire campus. It was a small school so everyone did more than one job, Coleman told CBB. Meanwhile she finished her education, earning a bachelors degree in English in 1970.

At a Glance

Born on July 25, 1946, in Noxapater, MS; married Cayle (Casey) Coleman, 1968; children: Marcus, Crystal, Arqullas. Education: Los Angeles Trade Technical College, AA in business, 1968; Tougaloo College, MS, BA in English, 1970. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Baptist

Career: Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, MS, secretary, 1968-72; Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, MS, purchasing agent and bookstore manager, 1972-78; White House Advance Team, Carter Administration, 1977-80; Democratic Party, Jackson, MS, office worker, 1980-87; self-employed political consultant, Jackson, MS, 1980-94; Mississippi House of Representatives, elected representative, 1994.

Selected memberships: National Black Caucus of State Legislators, vice president, 1998-2002, president, 2002-; Girl Scouts of America, Jackson, MS, board member; General Missionary Baptist State Convention, board member; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, member.

Addresses: Office Mississippi State Capital, Basement B-NC, PO Box 1018, Jackson, MS 39215. Home 308 Lynnwood Lane, Jackson, MS, 39206,

Got Potitics in Her System

Coleman got her first taste of politics in 1976. I went to a meeting of a group called Human Rights Coalition in Jackson, Mississippi, she told CBB. There she met an attorney who worked with the Democratic Party. He asked me to volunteer for the Jimmy Carter campaign, so I did. I didnt know what I was doing, but I volunteered and helped out any way I could. When Carter won the presidency, Coleman joined the celebration. I rode a bus from Jackson to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration, she recalled to CBB. Soon after, Carter planned a visit to Mississippi, one of the key states in his election victory. Because of my volunteer work on the campaign, I was asked to work with his advance team on his visit, said Coleman. An advance team precedes the arrival of president by several days and works closely with the secret service and local contacts to plan every detail of the visit from who is in the receiving line at the airport to seating arrangements at luncheons to hotels and meals. After Carters visit to Mississippi, his administration offered Coleman a full-time position on the White House advance team. She accepted and from 1977 to 1980 Cooper worked on Vice President Walter Mondales advance team. It was a very exciting and interesting time for me, Coleman told CBB. It was also a very active time as Coleman, who crisscrossed the country preparing for official vice presidential visits. I remember I was in Texas with Mondale and eight months pregnant. The team kept saying I would have that baby on the plane, she told CBB. Meanwhile, her husband Cayle worked for a large company in Mississippi. Were a one-politician family, joked Coleman.

In 1980 Coleman joined the Carter reelection campaign in Mississippi. When he didnt win, she began to work for the Democratic Party in Mississippi. I did lots of jobs from office assistant to campaign work, she told CBB. I also began to work as a political consultant to Democrats, helping them to get elected. By that time I had politics in my system.

Coleman made her own way into the political system through a chain reaction. In 1994, Democratic President Bill Clinton appointed a Mississippi congressman to the agriculture department, leaving a seat open in Congress. The then-Mississippi state supervisor ran for the seat and won, leaving his seat open. A state senator ran for that post, leaving his own vacant. Finally a state representative ran for and won the senate seat. Suddenly there was an opening in the Mississippi House of Representatives. And people began to tell me, you always help everyone else get elected, why dont you run yourself? So I did, Coleman told CBB. A special election was held and Coleman spent a month campaigning. I really enjoyed campaigning. I knew many of the people in politics at that time but I wasnt part of any political machine. I just believe in working directly with the people. When I ran I didnt have a machine behind me, I had the people.

Coleman won the election and took office in 1995. Id say being elected to the House of Representatives for the State of Mississippi is the proudest moment of my career, she told CBB. After the election she took over one of 122 seats in the House. Her district was the 65th, covering the city of Jackson and including 28,000 residents. Coleman sat on several committees in the house, including Ways and Means, Public Health, County Affairs, Insurance, and Public Property. She also served as vice chair of the Interstate Cooperation Committee. Though she enjoyed her work immensely, she also found it frustrating at times. You look for revenue and it is really difficult, she told CBB. We have had a hard session this year [2004] with the budget crisis and the economy shot. We are really feeling it at the state level. We dont even have the money for the absolute necessities.

Ascended the Ranks at NBCSL

While Colemans political career in Mississippi blossomed, so did her profile on the national level with the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL). On the NBCSL website, Coleman describes the group, made up of over 600 black state legislators, as a clearinghouse of information [which] works with legislators on a number of policy issues. The group also fosters a unified front among its members on issues of concern to Africans Americans, particularly those of poor and underserved communities. These concerns include social areas such as education, employment, health care, and racism, as well as business concerns such as energy, telecommunications, and international affairs. It also sponsors seminars and reports and produces a weekly radio show. Coleman became involved with the group in 1995. As a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives you are automatically a member, so I started attending the meetings after I got elected, she told CBB. At the time Mississippi had the highest number of black state legislators in the country, yet was not represented on any of NBCSLs executive committees. We didnt hold one bit of power, Coleman recalled to CBB. I remember at one meeting there was a lot of discussion about this but no one would volunteer to do anything. I said, Well I havent been in office long, but Ill try.

In 1998 Coleman was elected to the vice presidency of NBCSL, becoming the first Mississippian to hold one of the groups top offices. I held that post until 2002 when I ran for president and won, she told CBB. As president, Coleman is the official representative of the group. She meets with political and industry leaders and attends numerous meetings and conferences around the nation. We have an office in Washington, D.C., in the Hall of State building. I am there at least once a month. We meet in various sessions and once a year have a yearly meeting, she told CBB. Coleman does all of this while also maintaining a full schedule with the Mississippi legislature. Its a whirlwind, but I enjoy it, she told CBB.

Coleman added to her busy schedule with volunteer work for several civic and religious organizations in Jackson, including the Girl Scouts, the Mississippi Childrens Home Society, Leadership Jackson, and the General State Baptist Womans Convention. She has also been very active in her church, Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. As of 2004, Colemans busy schedule showed no signs of letting up soon. She was planning a 2004 reelection campaign to the presidency of NBCSL and looking forward to another term in Mississippis House of Representatives. She was even planning ahead for the day she retires. Young people in Jackson have no place to go for recreational activities, she told CBB. I would love to open up a community place for young people when I leave the legislature. I think about it often and think of ways to do it. It is something that needs to be done. I figure eventually I will get it done. Considering how much she has achieved just by following her desire to help people, there is no reason to doubt that the future youth of Jackson will one day spend idle afternoons at the Mary H. Coleman Community Center.



Ebony, May 2003.


Mary Coleman, Black Mississippi, (May 27, 2004).

Mary H. Coleman, Democrat, Mississippi House of Representatives, (May 27, 2004).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Mary Coleman on June 30, 2004.

Candace LaBalle

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