When the Coleman House burned down on Sept. 25, it sparked another kind of debate within the Coleman family. What to do with the property left to the family by Will and Mattie Coleman, an inheritance that has to be split 21 different ways?
The house was the long-time home of the first African American licensed veterinarian in Texas, Will Coleman, and something of a local legend among both whites and blacks in Navarro County.
For Will Downey II, who is now the oldest grandchild of Will Coleman, the house has been an issue since 1995, when his mother passed away. Lillian was the last Coleman to live in the house. For 17 years, the house and property have been declining, with shrubbery growing up higher than the state historical marker in front.
What has to happen, in Downey’s mind, is some sort of agreement on how to handle the property now. It will cost money to clear debris from the lot at the corner of Third Street and Eighth Avenue.
Getting the family to agree on anything is difficult, Downey said. In 2010, there was an attempt to clean up the property by the Single Believers Ministry. The group recruited the Adult Probation Department community service workers who cut back roof-high brush and weeds to reveal an unpainted but dilapidated house on the lot. The idea had been to turn it into a museum, according to Kathy Douglas, with Single Believers. But when the family couldn’t agree on the project, it stalled.
“That’s why we stopped, because he was trying to get the heirs together,” Douglas said.
Downey, who retired after 25 years in the military, is an amateur historian and genealogist, said that his grandfather was born in Chatfield in 1879. As a child, Coleman worked for a rancher named Witherspoon in Chatfield. Witherspoon had hired a tutor for his own four children, and Coleman was allowed to either sit in on the sessions or he remained in the house close enough to hear while these tutoring sessions were going on.
“He was listening and assimilating this,” Downey said, relating stories that he got from Witherspoon’s daughter.
Coleman was also good with the animals, and was encouraged by Witherspoon to take a veterinarian’s correspondence course from the Ontario School of Veterinarian Sciences in Canada. Because he needed laboratory time to fulfill his science courses, Witherspoon made sure Coleman could use the classrooms at the Chatfield girls school at night.
“That’s how he was getting his scientific work done, because he never set foot in Canada,” Downey said.
Coleman’s mail-order education began in 1895 when he was 16 years old and finished in 1911 when he was 32. While he continued his veterinarian studies, Coleman worked for ranchers and married his sweetheart, Mattie, and went to work as a delivery man for Whiteselle’s lumber yard while he tried to support his growing family.
He also moonlighted as a vet, starting around 1914 when he began doing an internship with a local white veterinarian. He won the approval of the ranchers around the county when he was called upon to treat the Corsicana mayor from an unspecified illness. The conclusion was that if Coleman could successfully treat a man then he could treat animals.
“The cute thing about this is that my grandfather became more proficient than the man he was interning with and when people called they only wanted Will Coleman,” Downey said.
In the mid-1910s, the out–of-state and out-of–country diploma mills came under attack. Rather than outright deny the right to practice to anyone who hadn’t studied at Texas A&M, the state allowed the students to take a test to prove their knowledge. Coleman was a black man who hadn’t even attended high school or college in Texas. He once again used the influence of the wealthy local ranchers in Navarro County who liked him to get him into the exam.
In 1919, Coleman is listed as one of the “non-graduates” to pass the veterinarian exam. He became the first licensed African-American veterinarian in Texas.