Chasing Ghosts: Great-Great-Uncle Herbert

My great-great-uncle Herbert’s portrait – an oil painting three feet tall and two feet wide, framed ornately in faux gold – hung in my family’s formal living room when I was growing up. This somewhat elegant and mildly majestic item was out of place in our little 1950s ranch-style house, even in the formal front room where the floors were hardwood (rather than carpeted) and an ancestor’s name was attached to every piece of furniture: Mother’s china cabinet or Grandmother’s buffet. His calm, kind, bespectacled expression hovered in the background during holiday dinners, and I had looked at him so many times I barely even thought about his face. Nearby, on a thin section of wall by a window, hung a much-smaller colorized photograph of his wife, great-great-aunt Viola Matilda Dickson, who was my father’s father’s father’s sister.

Herbert Wilber Coleman, who married my great-great aunt, would otherwise be of little consequence to me, except that Viola’s baby brother James Davis Dickson – who was my great-grandfather – would name his middle child,  Herbert Coleman Dickson, after his much-older brother-in-law. Then, years later, Herbert Coleman Dickson got married, had a family of his own, and named his middle child – my father – Herbert Coleman Dickson, Jr. Had my father not been so strongly opposed to this tradition, having hated living in his father’s shadow, I or my brother could easily have been Herbert Coleman Dickson III.

viola_dickson_colemanGreat-great-uncle Herbert was born in 1868 and died in 1934. It appears that he first married a woman named Ella Kent in 1892, though she died in 1894. Two years later, he married great-great-aunt Viola in 1896. The 1897 city directory for Montgomery lists them living in Clifton House, which was her father’s boarding house, and Herbert’s job was listed as manager of Southern Art Company. Throughout the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s and early 1930s, the city directories continually list them at various addresses around downtown Montgomery. It appears that they had no children. There were none in 1900 and there remain none in 1930, when the couple are 61 and 53 years old, respectively.

Herbert Coleman worked as a photographer back in the days of glass negatives and the big hand-held flash. His name appears often enough when searching local historical records. One page on the Alabama Pioneers website features one of his photographs of a steamboat, and a 2006 issue of the Montgomery Genealogical Society’s magazine had his work on the cover. More recently, writer Karren Pell mentioned Herbert and Viola in a blog post for Montgomery’s Midtown Living; a 1924 Capitol Heights neighborhood newsletter had discussed the couple’s home renovation. The remnants of Herbert Coleman’s life in Montgomery in the early 20th century are out there in plain view.

However, as prevalent as he was in Montgomery when married Viola, great-great uncle Herbert has been a hard man to trace in the years before that. The 1880 census shows an HW Coleman, 11 or 12 years old, living in Pensacola with his father WS Coleman, a “retail grocer” who was born in Alabama; his mother WD Coleman, a younger sister AD Coleman, and a 30-year-old schoolteacher “sister-in-law,” whose entry was butchered by the census taker, but it reads “MA Fountain.” Herbert’s mother’s maiden name could have also been Willie Fountain, so that WD could be her, with her sister’s last name of Fountain incorrectly spelled. Yet, in a Florida Census from 1885, WS Coleman in Escambia County – with two kids, Herbert and Ada, so presumably the same guy – is married to a woman named Dorsey Coleman, but there’s no MA Fountain there. So it’s possible that his mother’s full name was Willie Dorsey Fontaine Coleman. All in all, I’m not even sure if they’re the right people. Likewise, I’m not 100% sure, from the records I’ve found, that the Herbert Coleman who was married to Ella Kent was the same Herbert Coleman who married Viola Dickson.

However, a November 7, 1954 article in the Montgomery Advertiser, “Montgomery’s Flower and Tree Planter” by CM Stanley, seems to clear up some of the confusion. The article, which came twenty years after Herbert Coleman’s death, is about Viola, specifically her active leadership of the Montgomery Federation of Garden Clubs. However, about two-thirds of the way down, we get this:

Mr. Coleman came to Montgomery from Brewton but was a native of Monroeville, his mother being a Fountain related to Judge Murdock Fountain of Monroe County and to the McCorveys, also of that county.

Interestingly, it was Judge Murdock Fountain who, in the late 1920s, heard the case of three teenage boys in Monroeville who were charged with petty vandalism and burglary, one of them named Son Boleware. Two of the three were sent to the “industrial school” as punishment, but Son was handed over to his father, who assured the judge that he “would never trouble the community again.” That young man was the real-life model for Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Nonetheless, the man for whom my father and grandfather were named seems to have been a stand up guy, known for good work. In the records that I am sure about, he was married to Viola for 37 years, until he passed away, and maintained a respectable career. There’s none of the moving around and career changing that Viola’s father, David Madison Dickson, Jr. had done for most of his adult life.

Great-great-uncle Herbert and great-great-aunt Viola are buried side by side in Montgomery’s Greenwood Cemetery. Viola Matilda Dickson Coleman outlived her husband by a good bit, having passed away in 1960. And their framed portraits are still hanging in a Dickson household, Herbert’s majestic oil painting on one wall with Viola’s colorized face nearby.

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