nat king cole's father was a preacher -- 11/29/19

The legendary musician Nat King Cole's father was a preacher:

"The head of the [Coles] household, Edward, was by profession a wholesale grocer. This was a sensible job for a man with six mouths to feed, because when you are in the food business your family will not go hungry. He was a skilled butcher.

"But Edward James had a deep desire to leave the grocer's trade, a desire that was more than an ambition -- it was a true vocation. He wanted to serve the Lord, as had his late father-in-law Dan Adams. Edward wanted to preach the gospel in his own church.

"How much sacrifice he and his family would have to undergo in order for Edward Coles to realize this dream, we can only guess. We know little about the family's years in Alabama. They lived in a one-story frame house in a poor black neighborhood where the older children went to grammar school. Edward and Perlina's parents were all deceased. Except for Edward's brother Henry they had no relatives in Montgomery. Rev­erend Dan Adams, who died in 1905, had three sisters, named Comfort, Patience, and Mercy, and brothers named Ruben, Ben, and Joseph, who lived in Birmingham. Years later Nathaniel's sister Evelyn (as Evelina called herself) recalled a trip to Birmingham in 1923. That was the day they said goodbye to Perlina's cousin Hattie Goines Thomas and her daughters, just before leaving Alabama forever, so Papa could serve the Lord in Chicago, Illinois.

"Sometime between the census man's visit in 1920, and the spring of 1923, the wholesale grocer Edward Coles decided to give up the com­forts of his native Alabama and move his wife and four children to the chilly city of Chicago. This was a bold, romantic move, if not downright foolhardy at his age, to seek a new career in a strange city. Rents for three-room railroad flats on the South Side, where they were bound to live, were astronomical-hundreds a month. There is no evidence that Edward's career as a minister was much more than a dream in 1923, when he uprooted his family and put them on the train to Chicago. We know he had been a 'deacon' of the Beulah Baptist Church in Mont­gomery, reading the lessons, preaching from time to time. Whether he had been ordained as a salaried minister of the Baptist Church before 1923 is a matter of doubt.

"They were joining the Great Migration of African-American families from Dixie to the North. Some called it the Flight Out of Egypt, echoing Exodus. Between 1916 and 1919 a half million black Americans left the Southern states for Northern cities. A million more would follow in the twenties.

"Although little is known about the Coleses' life in Montgomery, a good deal is known about Alabama in the early 1920s, just after Ameri­can soldiers returned from World War I. The state was a brutal place for a black man to raise his family. Montgomery had flourished in the bosom of the Confederacy, and many of its citizens seemed uncon­vinced the North had won the Civil War. The KKK was in its heyday. Beatings and lynchings of blacks were common. A man of color who was fortunate enough not to be lynched or beaten could not expect work for pay equal to the white man's, or equal schooling for his chil­dren, or comparable housing.

Nat "King" Cole Birthplace

"There was every reason to leave Alabama, and a number of reasons to go to the Windy City. By the time Edward Coles considered it, there was a thriving neighborhood of Alabama blacks on the South Side. Word came home that the streets were paved with gold, the air was filled with music, and, as Langston Hughes said, 'the midnight was like day.' Chicago was the destination for black families from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. By the mid-twenties a hundred thousand blacks had gone to Chicago from the South. For many it was the Promised Land. There were jobs. Companies such as the Illinois Central Railroad, the Bessemer steel mills, and the Swift and Armour meat fac­tories welcomed the nonunionized black workers, recruiting the new­comers to break the back of the white unions.

"Maybe Edward Coles did have a paying job waiting for him in the Baptist Church in Chicago when he arrived there in 1923. It appears unlikely. The Reverend Coles was not a man to play fast and loose with the truth, and all his life he would tell how he had come to Chicago in that year 'to organize the Second Progressive Baptist Church.' This was a chapel of the 'storefront' variety, two blocks south of the Coleses' first­ floor flat on Prairie Avenue. Likely the butcher-evangelist, with a family of six to feed and high rent, chopped meat in the slaughterhouses every hour he was not preaching or asleep.

"He had a strong melodious voice, stamina, and a dramatic presence in the pulpit. In that neighborhood of Alabama refugees, Reverend Coles rapidly saved enough souls and preached weIl enough to make the collection plate ring, fill the pews, and pay himself a living wage. Soon he was a full-time minister of the gospel. His fame grew. A few blocks south at 45th and Dearborn, some fellow Baptists had established the Truelight Baptist Church in 1924. With greater resources, and their own corner church seating two hundred, they invited Reverend Coles to join forces, and he agreed.

"So by 1925 Reverend Coles, in the role he longed for, had leapt into the void, risked everything, and landed on his feet by the Grace of the Lord. He was a minister of the Baptist Church and his devoted wife, Per­lina, played piano for the choir on Sundays. His four children were attending good schools in the neighborhood, wearing clothes which, if not in the height of fashion, were at least patched to withstand the severe winters. They would never go hungry."



Daniel Mark Epstein


Nat King Cole


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 1999 by Daniel Mark Epstein


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