Paul Coates rescues the literary history of African-Americans

BEATING THE ODDS W.

June 28, 1992|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

Paul Coates -- African-American publisher of books for, by and about people of African-American descent -- didn't listen when people told him it could not be done.

There were those who said he could never start a publishing business on $300 -- and that was money he had borrowed. Statistics, they said, showed that African-Americans face even higher odds for failing in business ventures than whites. They said New York was the place to start a book publishing company, not Baltimore.

Finally, they said, don't take the added risk of focusing only on books by and about people of African descent.

Mr. Coates listened to none of the naysayers, and now the Black Classic Press -- which he founded along with his wife Cheryl -- is about to enter its 15th year.

He admits that it has not always been easy. Also, the business will probably never make him a wealthy man, he says. But Mr. Coates believes there are many barometers for judging success other than the size of a bank account.

"We are very successful. We are not very rich. The fact that we have survived against all of these so-called odds means that we are successful," says Mr. Coates, while sitting in an office in his Lochearn home, where the business is located.

"I've known Paul for a long time," says Calvin Reid, associate news editor at Publishers Weekly magazine, which is based in New York. "He is well respected as a publisher of classic black books."

Bakari Kitwana, editor of the African-American Publishers, Booksellers and Writers Association, says Mr. Coates has successfully filled a niche in the publishing world.

"He went into an area that no one had previously dealt with," says Mr. Kitwana from his Chicago office.

"The books he publishes are obscure . . . but very significant to our community. His efforts to republish works such as 'Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire' [by the late Drusilla Dunjee Houston, first published in 1926] have inspired others to republish black classics," Mr. Kitwana says.

Mr. Coates says he has always followed his own mind.

This is the same man who once, after all, headed the state's Black Panther Party, which was headquartered in Baltimore. And that organization, which was active in the '60s and early '70s, thrived on being different from the status quo.

Mr. Coates doesn't really like to talk about his bygone days in "the party," but neither does he regret joining the organization.

"I have no apologies," the 45-year-old says.

A chaotic, pivotal time

He became involved with the Black Panthers during a very chaotic and pivotal time in American history. The year was 1968. College campuses across the country were erupting with students protesting against the Vietnam War.

Instead of going home to Philadelphia, Mr. Coates moved to Baltimore to be with the woman whom he would later marry.

He also joined the Black Panthers.

"I came back -- like thousands of other blacks from Vietnam -- feeling the frustration of the failure and stagnation of the civil rights movement," Mr. Coates recalled.

"It was a time that had witnessed the assassination of Marther Luther King and of Malcolm X. The assassination of Malcolm X was much more significant to me," he says.

"There were uprisings in every major city, and I wanted to do my part. I didn't want to be in the position of having my kids one day ask me, 'So what did you do?' A lot of young blacks were thinking like that at the time," he says.

Mr. Coates liked the Black Panther Party because it provided an outlet for his feelings. Besides the Black Panthers creed of "teaching our people self-defense as a means of survival," programs such as the free medical clinics, free breakfast and clothing programs appealed to him.

He also felt a camaraderie with the other members. "They were young, black, gifted, and ready to die for what they believed in," he says.

There were many clashes between the Black Panthers and police, both in Baltimore and in other urban areas around the country.

Although Mr. Coates was charged with "everything from parking tickets" to pointing a weapon at police, his only convictions were for the parking tickets.

"I never had to do any real serious time in jail," he says. "The longest time I spent in jail was for about eight days when they tried to hold us without bail."

George Hurd, who described himself as "a Black Panther sympathizer" at the time, spent some days behind bars with Mr. Coates. They remain friends today.

"When I first met Paul, our ideologies didn't actually jibe," says Mr. Hurd, now 44 and a health educator in Baltimore. "I was involved with black nationalism -- separate but equal -- while socialism was what the Panthers believed in. He got me to understand that black nationalism was not the only way to go," he says.

Mr. Hurd believes that he and Mr. Coates have changed since that time.

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