Reuben Turner Coleman (June 1844–14 February 1909), entrepreneur, was born in the latter half of the 1840s and was the son of Samuel A. Coleman, a Cumberland County farmer, and a woman he enslaved named Mary (surname unknown). Coleman's brothers-in-law included Shed Dungee, who served in the House of Delegates from 1879 through 1882. It is not certain when Coleman's brothers and sisters gained their freedom, but his father emancipated Coleman on 23 February 1860. Coleman was economically independent and acted on behalf of his financially pressed father during the Civil War, which led to claims that he had remained enslaved until the end of the war by white men in the county who unsuccessfully attempted to recover debts and property from Samuel A. Coleman.

R. T. Coleman, as he was generally known, may have received only basic education and training as a child, but he used his keen financial sense and strong kinship connections with white Coleman family members in the area to become an independently successful investor and entrepreneur. He began buying and selling land in the spring of 1866 and operated a general store in Cumberland County throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Coleman also owned a hotel and before 1873 was licensed to sell alcohol there. In that year, believing that he was being illegally taxed on his business, he lodged a successful complaint with the county court. If, as happened in 1887 concerning disputed ownership of a buggy, he lost a court case, Coleman did not hesitate to appeal, although in that instance his suit failed.

By the mid-1880s Coleman was also one of the county's principal farmers. A large tract of land that he owned a few miles north of the county courthouse contained about three dozen mineral springs. He developed the property into his largest and most profitable business venture, which increased his community prestige and social standing. On 29 December 1891 he incorporated the Colemanville Mineral Springs Company, of which he became principal stockholder and president, to oversee and manage the springs. He had the water bottled and shipped to stores in several cities. The company also sold town lots and summerhouses to vacationing northerners and southern city-dwellers who bathed in the pools and drank from the mineral springs. People without summer homes could stay in the Colemanville Hotel. The town had its own post office (of which Coleman was postmaster from June 1876 until July 1881), bank, a newspaper entitled the Central Call, and horse stables. Although the town was called Colemanville during the heyday of the Colemanville Mineral Springs Company, the post office was established as Lucyville, named for a daughter who had died. The management company failed in the early years of the twentieth century, and the post office closed about the same time.

Coleman helped found Mount Olive Baptist Church in 1875 and provided it with a two-acre tract of land. He was also the church's founding minister, and in June 1882 the county court licensed him to perform marriages. Coleman was pastor of the church until he died. On 27 February 1882 the county court named him to fill a vacancy as justice of the peace. He won election to a full two-year term in May 1883 and served, probably without interruption, for approximately eighteen years. In 1901 the governor appointed him to a four-year term as notary public. Coleman was probably the last African American to hold public office in Cumberland County during the decades after Reconstruction.

Descendants described Coleman as tall and handsome and sometimes as arrogant and haughty. His prosperity allowed him to live in a large, well-furnished house, and his connections with respectable local white businessmen and attorneys helped him insulate himself from the deteriorating political condition of African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century. He spoke out against discrimination and in January 1900 publically opposed a new state law requiring racially segregated cars for railroad passengers.

Coleman tested the limits of black freedom by marrying three white women in violation of Virginia law. At least twice he wed in Washington, D.C., where interracial unions were legal. On 21 April 1868 Coleman married Martha Catherine Anderson. Following her death on an unrecorded date between 29 February and 23 October 1876, the county court appointed a white male guardian for their two daughters and one son. (A third daughter had died in infancy.) The legal necessity for that court action is unclear, unless the questionable legality of the marriage impaired Coleman's capacity as father to retain custody of his children. On 30 May 1878 Coleman married Mary Catherine Anderson, who may have been closely related to his first wife. In April 1879 the grand jury issued a presentment against his second wife and alleged that the marriage was unlawful. She died on 24 May, just days before she was to appear in court. Coleman reported his wife's death as caused by childbirth, although no record was made of the child's birth or death, and he was accused of poisoning her to avoid a trial for violating the state law. Her body was exhumed, but the coroner found no evidence of poison and a jury exonerated Coleman in June. He later married Wilma, or Wilmoth, Francis Whitlow (known as Willie), another local white woman, who had previously worked in his household as a servant. The date of their marriage is unknown, but it may have occurred about 1889 and certainly before 29 March 1892, after which she was regularly identified in public records as African American. She may have lived for part of the time in a separate house a short distance from his, although the 1900 census enumerator recorded them as residing in the same household. They had one daughter.

Reuben Turner Coleman suffered a stroke in 1908 and died on 14 February 1909. He was buried on his estate.


Sources Consulted:
Biographies and family history in Cumberland County, Virginia, and Its People (1983), 26–27, 95, and Marilyn Mildred White, "'We Lived on an "Island"': An Afro-American Family and Community in Rural Virginia, 1865–1940" (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1983), 56–91 (with birth year of 1844 on 59), 238 (death date of 14 Feb. 1909 from family sources), 291–304, 340–342; birth and death date on gravestone; United States Census Schedules, Cumberland Co., 1870 (age twenty-six), 1880 (age thirty-three), and 1900 (age fifty, with birth date of June 1849, and with third marriage in 1889), Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C.; Coleman was a party to numerous Cumberland Co. chancery cases, but see especially John H. Coleman v. Samuel A. Coleman, Etc., Cumberland Co. Chancery Cause, 1875-010 (with manumission deed, family information, and 23 July 1867 deposition by Zach Talley describing Coleman as "27 or 28 years old") and Zach Talley v. Samuel A. Coleman Etc., Cumberland Co. Chancery Cause, 1875-005; District of Columbia Marriage Licenses Register (1868); District of Columbia Marriage Records (1878); second wife's death recorded in Death Register, Cumberland Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; Richmond Daily Dispatch, 31 May 1879; 7 June 1879; 2 July 1879; Wilmington, Del., Daily Gazette, 2 June 1879; Petersburg National Pilot, 1 Feb. 1900; Luther Porter Jackson, Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895 (1945), 62; public offices documented in Cumberland Co. Order Books and land transactions in Cumberland Co. Deed Books; Records of Appointment of Postmasters, Virginia, Cumberland Co., Post Office Department, Record Group 28, NARA; Colemanville Mineral Springs Company prospectus in Richmond Planet, 16 Feb. 1895; estate administrator appointed on 13 Mar. 1909 in Cumberland Co. Order Book (1906–1934), 55.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Alexander H. Lorch III.

How to cite this page:
Alexander H. Lorch III, "Reuben Turner Coleman (1844–1909)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006, rev. 2021(http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Coleman_Reuben_Turner, accessed [today's date]).


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