Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Three Sisters

[Jasia's call for submissions for the next Carnival of Genealogy asked writers to choose One Woman (she had italicized just like that). But I'm lucky enough to have found three 20th century pioneers--three sisters with an interesting genealogy that goes to the core of some key historical issues. Some of the following was included in my May 5, 2006 post about one of these women--much, however, is new.]

Three sisters born in the twentieth century trace their genealogy back to a time when one of the most contentious issues in America's history divided a prominent Virginia family whose name they bear. But these three sisters became pioneers in their own right, overcoming the residual effects of their ancestors' servitude and their namesakes' controversy. In doing so, they made a name for themselves.

Bernadine Coles and her sisters, Ruth Coles, and Frances Coles were born in the looming shadow of the Great Depression in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The story of the Coles name in Virginia since the early nineteenth century is the complex, sometimes tragic, sometimes poignant, ocassionally absurd, history of the relationship between blacks and whites in America.

The parents of Bernadine and Ruth were Bernard Albert Coles, a dentist, and Ruth Wyatt, a public school teacher. Their paternal grandparents were Thornton and Annie Gamble Coles, both born in about 1867 in the Charlottesville (then Albemarle County) area. Thornton Coles was the son of John Coles, born a slave in about 1845, and John's wife, Laura, born in about 1853. John and his mother Agnes (born about 1815) served in the household of John S. Coles in St. Anne's Parish, Albemarle County, Virginia. [Examining the census records for that area, one could easily conclude that every second white man, and every third black man was named "John Coles." Careful discernment is necessary to understand which John Coles is John Coles one seeks]. John S. Coles was the grandson of Col. John Coles of Virginia and the great-nephew of Col. Isaac Coles. He was the nephew of Edward Coles, private secretary to President James Madison, and later, special envoy to Russia. [Too fully appreciate this entire story, don't bypass the hyperlink to Edward Coles' biography]. The Coles brothers, John and Isaac, were the sons of John Coles, a wealthy and well-connected tobacco planter. They were also that genealogical oddity, "double first cousins, once removed" to Dolley Madison.

John S. Coles, who owned the sisters' great-grandfather and great-great- grandmother, was a major slaveowner in Albemarle County. Ironically, his great-uncle, Isaac Coles had voted to abolish slavery when he served in Congress. Likewise, Edward Coles was a very early proponent of abolition. He freed all of his slaves upon moving to Illinois, became that state's second governor, and helped establish the abolitionist roots of the Republican Party. Coles County, Illinois, is named for Edward Coles.

The sisters' great-grandfather, John Coles, and great-great-grandmother, Agnes ("Aggy") Coles, clearly appear on the 1850 and 1860 census slave schedules in the household of John S. Coles, St Anne's Parish, Albemarle County, Virginia. In 1850, Aggy is listed as a 35 year old black female; her son is listed as a four year old black male. In 1860, Aggy is listed as a 45 year old black female; son John is enumerated as a 14 year old black male.

So that's the background of Bernadine, Ruth, and Frances Coles, the great-granddaughters of slaves, growing up in the the Great Depression. Thornton Coles, a clothes presser, gave his granddaughters a typewriter when Bernadine and Ruth were about ten and five years old, respectively. They played "office."

Being the daughters of a dentist and a teacher, the girls were focused on education. In a 2003 interview with her journalism major granddaughter, Bernadine that from the time she was in the fifth grade, she knew she was going to college. But, she said, she didn't want to be a dentist like her father because she might have to take biology, and she was not interested in that, nor did she believe she had the patience to be a teacher like her mother.

Ruth graduated first in her class at Jefferson High School in Charlottesville.

Growing up in the town where Thomas Jefferson had founded one of America's great universities might have provided a premier educational opportunity for the Coles sisters, But in the 1940s, the granddaughters of slaves were not admitted to the University of Virginia. So the girls headed to Petersburg and Virginia State College (an historically black college now known as Virginia State University).

Frances also graduated from Virginia State University.

The sisters excelled in college. Once again, Ruth graduated #1 in her class. There was no graduate education available for African-Americans in Virgina at that time, so Bernadine and Ruth were on the move again; this time to New York City to attend New York University. Ruth graduated first in the class at NYU.

Bernadine Coles Gines earned a bachelors degree from Virginia State College and an MBA from New York University in 1947. Not surprisingly, she ranked #1 in her class. In 1954, she became the first black woman to be certified as a CPA in the State of New York.

Ruth's bachelor's degree was in business education and she earned an MBA from NYU. In 1962, Ruth became the first black woman in Virginia to be certified as a CPA. At the time there were fewer than 100 black CPAs in the whole nation; now two of them were the great-great-granddaughters of Agnes Cole, a slave. Ruth later (1977) received a doctorate in education from the College of William and Mary.

In New York, Bernadine Coles had difficulty finding a job with an accounting firm. She had searched for two years before two young Jewish men offered her a position in their firm. After a stint in that firm, Bernadine began a long employment relationship with the City of New York. By that time she had married my uncle Richard Edward Gines, and had a son, my cousin Richard Edward Gines IV.

Meanwhile, Ruth became a professor at Virginia Union University in Richmond. She would spend nearly 48 years there, retiring in 1997 as head of the Business Department. A scholarship has been established at Virginia Union by W. K. Kellogg Foundation and family and friends to honor Dr. Ruth Coles Harris for worthy and deserving students enrolled in the Sydney Lewis School of Business.

Frances Wood became a teacher in Arlington County, Virignia, and has taught at all levels. Still active, she was honored last month by the Arlington School Board as she marked her 50th year with the Arlington schools. She's currently the special education coordinator.

“Working in the Arlington Public Schools has made each day an occasion of discovery and new pleasure. Each day of working in APS has been rich in challenges and rewards,” said Frances Wood of her half century of dedication.

Bernadine and Ruth are profiled in the book, A White-Collar Profession: African-American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921(Univ. of N. Car. Press 2002) by Theresa Hammond.

Bernadine, Ruth, and Frances Coles certainly must be regarded as pioneers--another example of ordinary people making history by doing extraordinary things. One must wonder, however, what part of their determination came from another achiever, Aggy Coles, who perservered through the dark days of Virginia bondage.

Today, blacks and whites share the distinction of the Coles name in Virginia and Illinois and around the country. Doctors, professors, writers, social activists, business people, artists, and accountants have written the modern history of the Coles family name, now without regard to race or "previous condition of servitude."

Thanks to:
New York University, Leonard M. Stern School of Business

Alexis Gines

Theresa Hammond
Chairperson, Department of Accounting
Wallace E. Carroll School of Management
Boston College


Randy Seaver said...


What a wonderful uplifting story. The sisters never let bad things stand in their way very long, did they. The true American spirit.

This is a great example of how genealogy blogging enriches all of us. You might have had it published, after much editing and cutting to size, in Rootsweb Review or a local society newsletter - but look at the exposure it will get from the Carnival and your blog readers.

Thanks for the story - made my night.

Cheers -- Randy

Miriam Robbins said...

Another great story, Craig. I always enjoy reading about how people have overcome life's obstacles and's both inspiring and sobering, as I think about all the blessings I have and how easily they have come to me. We need reminders about how hard-fought those things were won that are now taken for granted. I especially enjoyed reading about Edward Coles's life and the impact he had upon the state of Illinois.

Anonymous said...

HI my name is aleviyah coles and im attempting to do a family tree and all i know is my grandfather Roy coles is from west virginia but he didnt know much about his family because he was separated from his mom when she passed away at early age. She was Native American and all of her children were seperated because her tribe did not want to care for biracial chidlren. My grandfather ended up in Detroit, MI. His father later found him but he did not his children were gone because he was in the military. My great grandfather name was ennis coles. Im curious if there could be some relation here.