Greg Coleman: 'Reach Back as You Climb'

Posted Feb 18, 2016

When Greg Coleman’s father became the first black salesman at a JCPenney in Jacksonville, Florida, the elder Coleman was assigned a work space in the basement.

At least it was a start and provided an opportunity to climb.

Coleman said African Americans would select items from the other parts of the store, take them to the basement and wait in a line because they wanted to show support for his father.

Born in 1954, Coleman has vivid memories of segregationist policies: water fountains, busses, schools.

“I remember whites’ only drinking fountains, and knowing me and my inquisitive mind, I wanted to drink out of it to see if there was any difference between the water,” he recalled.

Even Coleman’s youth team was prevented from playing in the Gator Bowl, which was supposed to be a reward earned by all city champs.

“We won our division, and we weren’t allowed to play in the Gator Bowl because of the color of our skin,” Coleman said, opening a vein during a 2015 interview with

In middle school, Coleman was one of 15 African Americans who integrated a previously all-white school. It was a tense time because some students picked on and threw objects at them, but they stuck together and helped the school district take a step forward. Coleman said a resolve emerged:

“Each one of us said whatever we could do in the future to make life better for those coming behind us, then that’s what we’re going to do: Reach back as you climb, because regardless of how successful you are, it took somebody to pave the way.”