Retired UO professor Edwin Coleman dies

Dr. Edwin Coleman delivering a keynote commencement address for the UO Ethnic Studies class of 2015. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Palmquist)

Former University of Oregon English professor Edwin Coleman II passed away on Jan. 23 from influenza-related conditions. He was 84 years old. 

After Coleman received his Ph.D in theater in 1971 from UO, the university hired him as an English professor. Coleman modified courses to include more African-American literature and authors of other minority groups because he wanted to expand student perspectives on racism and economic disparity. Coleman also shared his stories of growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Donella-Elizabeth Alston in the UO Department of Ethnic Studies remembers Coleman for his intelligence, graciousness and will to teach.

“Education was a huge principal that he stood for,” Alston said, “If you were struggling with barriers, he was more than willing to help you get past them.”

Coleman’s work influenced the Ethnic Studies department at the UO, which he co-chaired in 1981. Four years later, he served as the director of the department until his retirement in 1998.

Before his career with UO, Coleman was a professional bass player, touring across the country playing with renowned musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald. Coleman first picked up an instrument at a traveling blackface minstrel show when he was five-years-old. Coleman’s father took him backstage, where a violinist said to him, “‘Do you want to play this thing, boy?’” and Coleman simply replied, “yeah,” according to an interview with the Daily Emerald Podcast Network.

During his undergrad years at San Francisco State University, he engaged in civil rights activism along with members of the Congress of Racial Equality. Coleman attended sit-ins and fought for equal opportunity in housing, which eventually led to a meeting with Martin Luther King in San Francisco, according to a Register-Guard article from June 2016.

At UO, Coleman taught African-American literature courses for 30 years and also served as a mentor for Black students. In the early 1970s, UO president Robert Clarke called on Coleman to be a liaison between the school and a student involved in a Black Panther Party march to protest racial inequality facing Black Americans.

Coleman is survived by his wife, Charmaine Coleman, sons Edwin and Callan and two grandchildren.

Coleman’s memorial service is Tuesday, Jan. 31, according to the Register-Guard.

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