Fall 2014

Isaac Coleman

Isaac Coleman

Isaac Coleman is one of those soft-spoken activists who seem to show up everywhere-canvassing for city council candidates, speaking up at meetings of progressive Democrats, strategizing over dinner on African American and Latino unity, or planning how to involve area businesses in the Kindness Campaign. He works part time for the Environmental Quality Institute at UNCA and serves on the boards of Clean Water for North Carolina, the Education Coalition, and the Kindness Campaign.

In the 2005 election, he served as campaign manager for Terry Bellamy
and as a campaign volunteer for Robin Cape and Holly Jones.

Coleman’s activism began in 1961 at Knoxville College, a small African American college in Tennessee, during sit-ins aimed at integrating public accommodations. “I was in jail practically every other day,” he recalled. “We college students created such an uproar in Knoxville that the city officials negotiated with the college officials to try to make us stop demonstrating! They threatened us with expulsion, and a lot of the group dropped out at that point.” But Coleman was just getting started. Knoxville was supposed to receive an “All-American City” award. “We were all set to picket, to let people know it wasn't an All-American City. We arrived with our picket signs in a van, but the police were waiting for us and just carted us off to jail. At 5 am we were taken to court and sentenced to thirty days at the County Farm.

“When we got there, they told us to take a shower, but provided no towels, telling us to just dry off with our undergarments. This was in the wintertime. So we refused the showers and got put into “the hole’’- tiny cubicles, solitary confinement. When it came suppertime, all they fed us was cold cornbread and water, even though we could smell the beef stew they were serving the other prisoners, and we were starving. So we refused to eat that. They gave us a coffee can to urinate into.

One of the men said after awhile that his coffee can was full. So one of the guards said he was coming in to get it, but they jumped on my friend and started beating him; it was a joke for them.”

In 1964, at the end of his junior year in college and shortly after the murders of Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner, Coleman went to Mississippi with the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to work on voter registration projects in Columbus and West Point, where they held a “Freedom School” with tutoring and a library for youth. Next, he went to Tupelo and was project director of a campaign to elect one of Medgar Evers’ brothers for governor.

“We were working in the housing projects,” he remembers. “The police started coming after us so we skipped town.” He rode with other civil rights workers, a white man and two white women, sitting in the back seat next to a white woman. “We got arrested in the next town. When the
cop looked into the car and saw me there, he grinned and said, “Nigger, you’re in big trouble!”

“They took us to the jail and a crowd of white people started throwing rocks at the windows. A policeman came to my cell and told me to come to him. I refused at first, but after several threats, I came to the door of the cell and he grabbed me by my goatee and slammed my face in the cell bars.

In January 2005 Coleman got involved with the progressive Asheville Coalition. Optimistic about electing progressives to City Council, he volunteered with Robin Cape’s campaign committee. “Also,” he says, “I talked with Terry Bellamy and encouraged her. Her previous run for Mayor had been unsuccessful, but I sensed that her time had come. She asked me to run her campaign and I did. For the African American community to make progress, it depends on leadership; people need someone to identify with and then, change is possible. Having Terry win the election is a big step forward!”

“Education and employment” are two key issues in Asheville, says Coleman. “One-third of African-Americans in Asheville live in public housing, and in those projects the unemployment rate for African-Americans is 80-90%. There is an achievement gap in the schools, between African American and Caucasian students, which is now beginning to close at the elementary level. The Education Coalition is helping to close the gap, but it remains wide in middle school and high school, and the high school dropout rate for African American males is high. We need to help African American children be successful in the schools. They are still not teaching African American children to read, and that’s a tragedy. The education system must become more sensitive to all people of low wealth.”

A cofounder of the African-American-Latino Coalition, known as “Afro-Tina,” Coleman says: “Many of the problems that Latinos face are similar to those of African Americans. We need cultural understanding between the two groups. There is already some conflict among young people, due to lack of understanding. We need to unite to overcome thesocio-economic barriers both groups face. We don’t want to duplicate efforts, but to see where there is a need we can address.”

Coleman believes that successful change always depends on political representation, and he hopes to see a Latino elected to City Council in the near future. Among the changes he seeks are improved employment opportunities and a decent living wage. “We need to emphasize both college and technical schools in preparing youth for the new jobs. I’m hoping to see more unity among all people in Asheville. I think we’re making great progress, as shown by the overwhelming interracial vote for Bellamy. If we can keep that kind of spirit going, we can be ambassadors for unity and progressive change.”

Describing his involvement with the Kindness Campaign, Coleman said, “The Kindness Campaign can play a very important role in all of these issues, spreading the philosophy of kindness in the social, economic, and political spheres. The Kind & Safe Schools program will help relieve tension between socio-economic and racial groups, by decreasing bullying and heading off gang activity, and promoting better understanding. I believe that the Kindness Campaign will also have a positive effect on how employers treat employees and how service people treat their customers, as the campaign reaches out to the business community. Asheville is a great place already, and it can be a lot better.”

He said he grew up in segregated schools, but was offered the opportunity to go to an integrated school for his senior year of high school.  He turned this down.  He knew that blacks would not be welcomed at the school, and he felt that he wanted to finish his senior year in the high school where he had been attending.  He wanted to enjoy his senior year.  He then went to Knoxville College (a black college).  He started demonstrating around public accommodations via SNCC, and he went to jail a lot.  His mother was not happy with his decision to demonstrate rather than focus on college.  After one arrest, he was sentenced to the county farm.  Towards the end of the school year, the college president asked them to stop.  Marion Berry asked him to go to Mississippi for Freedom Summer to register voters.  He went to Ohio for orientation. 

Isaac first went to Jackson Mississippi, then to Columbus (better than the Delta).  He went door to door to register voters.  They called their homes “Freedom House” and one of the houses was blown up in the Delta.  He also went to West Point, Mississippi to register voters and do political organizing.  African Americans were excited about getting politically organized.  He was away at training when his house in Tupelo was set on fire.  They had difficulty finding another place, since the locals were very scared.  At one point, he was in a car with two white women and one white man and they were stopped by the police.  They all went to jail, and a mob showed up.  The deputy at the jail, grabbed him and asked him “which one of these women are you fucking” with in the cell.  In court, the deputy snuck up to Isaac and yelled ‘wake up nigger” in his ear and then smacked him.  The women called SNCC who called the Justice Department who called the police.  The police were forced to let them go and give them an escort to the edges of the county, with the mob following behind.  Then the police turned around and left them, so they quickly went to the black part of town, and the locals there started throwing rocks at the mob.

Isaac said that his experiences opened a lot of doors, but he had friends who did not survive.  One friend was shot in a grocery store and nothing was done.  Isaac spent a lot of time in jail at West Point.  A man named Billy Busbee said he was going to kill him at one point.   One day, there was a car parked on the street, and the men in it said they were FBI. Billy Busbee was sitting in the back seat. The FBI was not their friend. 

Isaac said that he felt it was important to know the history of our country.  He spent five years in Mississippi before going to NYC for 1 ½ years and then back to Mississippi for economic development efforts.  He helped start Freedom Schools.  He said he learned a lot in Mississippi, and he is still involved politically with the Democratic Party and running campaigns, and working on reading program for local students.  He also works with Clean Water for NC and Progressive Democrats.  Someone asked a question about non-violent tactics, and Isaac said that it was foolish to go up against the US government or any form of government in the USA with violence – they have way more weapons and know exactly how to respond to violence.  He felt that non-violent tactics were the only ones that could possibly succeed. 

Isaac also recounted the story of a river being dredged while looking for the missing three civil rights workers.  They found a body while doing this, and the hands and feet were tied together, and yet the local sheriff said that it was a case of suicide.  There are so many sad stories from this time in American history. We finished the evening by singing “Sit at the Welcome Table”.

Over the years Isaac has been recognized for his community service and work. Among those recognitions are Awards for Service from the City of Asheville and the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Arc of Justice Award and the Asheville City School Foundation’s Champion Award.


Excepts from 4/18/06 Urban news Article by Cathy Holt, Read On WNC Blog by Rob Neufield http://thereadonwnc.ning.com/forum/topics/isaac-coleman-from-civil

2012 Excerpts from Dancewater http://dancewater.blogspot.com/2012/03/non-violence-and-freedom-summer-story.html Isaac Coleman spoke second. 



Ray Kisiah

Ray Kisiah

 Ray Lewis Kisiah was born January 21,1928, the first of four children born to Mertie Lou Hudson and Raymond Bartlett Kisiah. Ray remembers his childhood as a good one. He says his family was “was in relatively good shape” during the depression because his father was employed at the post office and had a ready salary. During the depression the family not only grew with another child, Donnie, but Rays grandmother and his uncle moved in, too. Times were tough and the family took care of each other.

Some time between 1933 and 1934 Ray’s father’s health started to falter; he took a month’s leave absence. In a short while the elder Kisiah had withdrawn his retirement savings and the family moved to Florida to join a cousin in the house painting business. The business plan didn’t work out and before long the family was back in Charlotte.

Ray recounts that after Florida, “We moved a bit,” a pattern Ray took with him into adulthood. When his father got a job selling used cars, the family finally settled. They rented a place out in the country where they grew their own food. Ray’s grandfather Pickens had skills in the garden and Ray was his helper. He says the garden, and a couple of hogs they raised, was a “goodly portion” of their source of food. Ray enjoyed living in the country – it was a great life for a kid. He used go about a mile behind the house where there was a creek. The swimming was super. They lived there until 7th grade and the family moved back to town, in Charlotte, where Ray helped a friend with a newspaper route and delivered Liberty Magazine. Ray’s aunt married a fellow that bought a 70 acre track of land, as he described it, “way out towards the river.” The family used to tease that it was a bad buy and would never amount to anything. But Ray loved it. Still living in Charlotte, Ray often rode his bicycle out to the place. He got to use a rifle and was as expected to bring back squirrels.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? Outdoors, the country, growing food – Parks. Bicycling, hunting, swimming – Recreation. Ray’s love for his chosen field grew long before he realized it. Ray enjoyed school and was an avid reader. He excelled in high school in College Prep courses - algebra, geometry, world history, American history, geography – he loved it all. He took a year of typing and could type 17 words a minute. At Charlotte tech he got to play football.

After graduating high school in 1946 Ray immediately enlisted in the US Marine Corps where he served in China from 1946-1948. Once his military stint was over, Ray wasted no time enrolling in college. He attended UNC Charlotte from 1948-1950. He doubled up some classes and graduated in 1 2/3 years; working with the Charlotte Parks Department while in college. He finished his studies in March 1952, graduating from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. degree, on the Deans List and then went to work for Charlotte Parks and Recreation Commission.That same year Ray married Martha Louise Alexander on September 6. The newly weds began their lives together in Charlotte, N.C. where Ray was employed with Charlotte Parks & Recreation Commission as the Recreation Center Director and Swimming Pool Manager. In 1953, he was promoted to Supervisor and Martha Ray, known as Penny. was born. In 1954, Ray and his young family moved to Drexel, NC where he worked as the Director of Drexel Community Center. In 1956, the family moved back to Charlotte. That’s the year Ray Lewis, known as Butch, was born. Ray served as the Assistant Superintendent and Director of Recreation for Charlotte Parks & Recreation. In 1962, the family moved to High Point, NC for Ray’s new job as Director of Parks & Recreation. From 1970 to November 1971 the Kisiahs lived Boone, NC where Ray was employed as the General Manager of Seven Devils Resort. You’re seeing the connection to his youth and moving, right? In November 1971, the Kisiah family moved to Asheville. Ray served as the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Asheville and held the position for 22 years. He retired in 1995 as the Director of Parks, Recreation and Public Facilities of the City of Asheville.

Throughout his career, Ray was an innovator in the parks and recreation field. When Ray came to Asheville, the City had 14 parks and seven recreation centers, all of which were fairly rundown. His tenacity and vision turned Asheville’s rundown facilities and limited programs to a nationally recognized system. One of his first tasks was to tap into federal funding programs, Urban Renewal and Model Cities, to support the large amount of work needed to revitalize Asheville parks and recreation facilities. Three months after becoming Director, Ray asked the City Council to double his $400,000 annual budget and then found federal money. After determining that it would be less expensive to rebuild rather than refurbish, Ray and the City set out on an ambitious program. Spending $12 million during the next 10 years, Ray led the development of the Montford Recreation Center; expanded Weaver Park to create basketball and tennis courts, a picnic shelter, and added dugouts to the ball field; built pools, created

Mountainside Park and a number of other recreation facilities. In addition to generating funding to help realize his vision, he encouraged and solicited the involvement of thousands of volunteers who gave of their time and talents to enhance the recreational programming.This was soon followed with collaboration with Asheville City Schools and the Asheville Housing Authority to acquire the Livingston Street School and turned it into the Livingston Street Recreation Center, later to become the W.C. Reid Recreation Center.

These accomplishments were followed by a methodical process over a period of many years to work with government and community partners that resulted in a major revitalization of the city’s parks including but not limited to Recreation Park, Montford Park, Murphy-Oakley Park, Kenilworth Park, a new West Asheville Park, Shiloh Recreation Center, and brought resources to the WNC Nature Center, Aston Tennis Center, McCormick Field, Municipal Golf Course and Riverside Cemetery.

Ray took lots of heat for renovating some existing parks instead of adding new ones. White residents criticized him for beginning the overhaul of the parks system in the city’s poorer sections. Ray said, “Children need a good place to play, no matter what their race.” Black residents also complained he wasn’t building fast enough. Reflecting on the that time Ray stated, “I figured as long as I was getting shot at from both sides, I must have been doing pretty good.” He worked with the Montford Park Players to create an amphitheater at the Montford Recreation Center complex, known today as the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater. This early work still lives today as a one of a kind facility within Asheville’s park system. It has supported the outdoor Shakespeare company for over 30 years.

Ray takes pride in the fact that his was the first department to bring women into its senior administration (in 1975). He’s also proud of the cooperation displayed, at the time, between his department and the City and County schools and sports leagues in producing programs to benefit children. Rays has a long list of volunteer service to his profession He served on the National Recreation and Parks (NRPA) Board of Trustees; Membership, Public Policy, Budget and Finance, and National Issues Committees of NRPA; president of American Parks and Recreation Society (APRS); president of the North Carolina Recreation and Park Society; and president of the North Carolina Association of Amateur Athletics Union. He has been selected by his professional colleagues to serve in practically every leadership capacity. Ray is the author of numerous articles in professional journals, magazines and operations manuals. He has been a guest lecturer, speaker, panel member at numerous colleges and universities and professional recreation meetings, conferences, and training workshops.

Over the years, Ray received many awards and recognitions for his contributions to the field of recreation and parks. In 1987 the National Distinguished Professional Award for his continuous professional experiences and service in the park and recreation field from 1952 to 1995. He was also the recipient of the APRS Distinguished Fellow Award, the United States Amateur Athletics Union National Recreation Man of the Year, and the UNCC Harold D. Meyer Outstanding Alumnus Award. On April 28,1995, he was honored to receive recognition outstanding commitment to the citizens of Asheville by having a park dedicated in his name. The Ray L. Kisiah Park is located at 70 W Chapel Road, 28803. On Oct 5, 1995 the Ralph C. Wilson Award was presented to Ray as the person who best exemplified Wilson’s commitment to the NRPA. Ray spent an amazing 45 years in his profession! His expertise and leadership as a parks and recreation professional has left a long-lasting impact on the over 60 parks and recreation facilities in Asheville as they continue to exist today.