The Blind Man Who Refused To Be Handicapped

by: Lillian A. Lottier Jan. 12, 1929
/ Robert Coleman (AFRO file photo) /
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Robert Coleman, despite being blind, published ‘The First Colored Directory of Baltimore City.’ (AFRO file photo)

For Black History Month, the AFRO presents a series of articles highlighting important local heroes from the archives. This week we spotlight Robert Coleman, a D.C. native who moved to Baltimore in 1896. He eventually lost his sight but refused to give up.

Suppose you were in your early thirties, had just entered upon the real earning period of your life, had a wife and several small children and an enviable position in society. Then suppose you were stricken almost totally blind. What would you do?

Would you crumple under a calamity and give yourself up to bewailing your misfortune? Would you throw up the sponge and drop out of the current of life? Would you become an object of pity and charity and a helpless dependent upon your family and society?

Well, Robert Coleman didn’t. He bravely turned his back upon worry; he refused to pity himself and to be pitied by others; he made up his mind to support his family, educate his children, and live a normal, self-respecting, productive life. AND, HE HAS DONE THIS.

Robert Coleman came to Baltimore from Washington in 1896. Two years before he had graduated from the business department of the M street high school. He secured a position as a valet to a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer, and because he came of good stock, was a good looking and had a sunny disposition, he soon became a general favorite in Baltimore society.

Then came a time when Robert Coleman dropped out of sight. Neither at social functions nor at the Y. M. C. A., of which he was an active board member, was he seen for over a year. Robert Coleman was blind – had suddenly gone blind. Today when Mr. Coleman talks of this first blindness of his, he never fails to speak in highest terms of the few friends who helped him to keep soul and body together during this dark period of his life.

So, in 1903, in the assurance of recovered eyesight, he got married. Thereupon, to add to his income as a valet, he branched out into other lines of endeavor. He solicited orders for signs and with worked with caterers in his spare time. Most important of all, he observed the principle which lies at the bottom of every self-made success – HE NEVER SPENT ALL HE MADE.

Thus when blindness again threatened and finally overtook him, in 1910, he had a tidy little sum saved up for immediate emergencies. He needed it, too, for this second blindness, due to atrophy of the optic nerve, persisted and faced a future of almost total darkness. However, it was a darkness physical, for never once has his brave spirit gone into eclipse.

His employer secured him entrance to the Maryland Workshop for the Blind and there he studied piano-tuning. Conditions in the workshop irked him and he left in 1913 to go in business for himself. A blind man in business for himself! Imagine the courage and self-confidence of such a step.

He actually made good, too. He tuned pianos and solicited orders for signs, book, job, and commercial printing. Born with a flair for business, he took advantage of every possible opportunity. He worked hard and never permitted his blindness to be a stumbling block in anything he undertook.

One of his unusual achievements is the publishing of “The First Colored Directory of Baltimore City,” which also includes a Washington annex. Aided by a loyal wife, who has been indispensable to his life and activities, he collected the material and advertisements in his spare time, and from 1913 on each year has been published “Coleman’s Directory,” as we Baltimoreans call it.

Mr. Coleman is a taxpayer. Two of his six daughters – no sons – are teachers, a third attends Howard University, and the others are also being educated. He belongs to several social and civic organizations and is now pursuing a night-school course in journalism.

He is the moving spirit in “The Association for the Handicapped Inc.,” an organization devoted to improving conditions among the blind, deaf, dumb, crippled and feebleminded. His indefatigable efforts to interest the public in this hitherto neglected class have succeeded to a remarkable extent. He is now raising money to purchase a building to be used as an industrial and recreational center for these unfortunates.

A big undertaking? So it is, but behind it is a man with a big heart, untold faith, and unflagging energy. Hats off to Robert W. Coleman, the blind man who refuses to be handicapped.

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