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Great-grandson of enslaved Kentuckians honors family through farming

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136 years ago, Jim Coleman’s great-grandparents bought 15 acres in rural Fayette County. As freed slaves, James and Lucy Coleman turned to the Union Benevolent Society for a $1200 loan to purchase the land on March 27, 1888.

Jim says his great-grandfather had served in the Union Army’s 5th Colored Infantry, and their courage during a battle in Louisiana helped President Lincoln push for more black soldiers in the Union ranks.

James and Lucy Coleman raised six children, including Jim’s grandfather John who along with his wife Mollie would take over running the family farm in 1910. Later in 1950 Jim’s father and mother, Sam and Cleo Coleman, took the reins of operating the farm.

Today Jim who bought the family farm in 2001 honors and remembers the generations who came before him. He understands they faced many obstacles.

“They didn't waste any time. They focused on what is it that we can do, not what we can't do. And so that was passed on to John and Mollie's kids with a sense of urgency, a fierce sense of focus of what do we need to do today, to be able to build wealth and a great future for all of our kids. And that's what they focused on.”

Near the new home Jim built on Coleman Crest Farm, his grandparents are buried marked with a small flat gravestone.

“This is truly where I feel their spirits right now, they're here. And it's just a marker that they again, they persevered and saved this land and raised the seven beautiful children that all went out and did well.”

Jim traveled many miles before coming back to the family farm that he grew up on. Jim went off to college at Howard University in Washington D.C.

He says all four of his siblings received college educations.

Coleman studied economics and married his college sweetheart. He and his wife Cathy would eventually live in New York and make a couple of trips every year to visit the farm in Fayette County.

Sadly, life took a drastic turn when Cathy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Jim says she fought it with courage, but in 2020 she lost the battle.

They had been married 37 years, and Jim says he was lost without her.

“When you get hit with something like that, the only thing that I've learned to do is to number one, remain very busy. Or you'll lose your mind to find a new purpose. And I didn't have to go far. I said my main purpose is going to be I'm going to go home and restore my heart and restore my family farm and absorb a lot of my thoughts, my energy, I didn't get as depressed as able to contribute to our community.”

 Jim focused on turning his 13 acres into an organic vegetable farm where he would grow produce like okra, potatoes, beets, onions, squash, and green beans that were harvested in the morning and delivered to stores and restaurants in the afternoon.

“I'd like for my produce to not be more than two days old. What I do now is pick and deliver so when they get it, it's less than two hours old. Now what does that mean to the customer? To the customer that means they've got a longer shelf life. They can have it stored in their facilities longer, but most importantly it's fresh and it tastes good, and it looks good on display which makes the customers buy it faster.”

Jim likes to say he’s a businessman who happens to be a farmer.

“I'd say the first year I did about $5,000 in gross sales. The following year did about 8,000. Last year, we did probably about 13,000. This year, we're gonna do over $100,000. And that's from taking on two big accounts. I'm blessed that I've got a good relationship with this firm called Black Soil Kentucky. Ashley Smith is the CEO of the firm and she's a great aggregator and a connector. And she connected me to a great opportunity called Feeding Kentucky.”

While he’s growing healthy food, Jim also enjoys feeding the minds of people, especially younger folks who are interested in agriculture.

“When I talk to young people, and I've said this, just in the last week, when I talk in front of them, I say, a slave buying land. What excuses do you have? They could not vote, they had just taken the shackles off, they could not go to JPMorgan Chase or any other bank to get a loan. Many times, they didn't know how to read or write. Many were still dealing with a lot of trauma. But they didn't give up or quit. And they decided to focus on what they could do, not what they couldn't do.”

From a personal standpoint, Jim says he’s grateful for the hard work and determination to succeed that those who plowed the farm before him passed on to the next generation.

“They ended up generating wealth for future generations and being able to have an impact. I like to say that on March 27, 1888, that was the day I was conceived as well as 300 other descendants of James and Lucy Coleman. It didn't happen overnight. It did not. They were so focused. Now one thing too is that they were very spiritual. They honestly deep in their bones believed in the Lord and that things can be better as long as they worked hard. And as long as they were responsible.”

Jim’s farm was part of an African American community called Utteringtown that included a church and a one-room schoolhouse. Utteringtown was one of twenty hamlets in Fayette County where freed black slaves lived, went to school, and worked.

Today a few buildings remain from those hamlets.

All of the hamlets are in the 12th District represented by Council Member Kathy Plomin. She’s part of an effort to preserve and honor the history of those freed slave communities.

Plomin says, “Most of them did have a church, and then others had even more than churches. They're very tight communities, very generational, and they still exist, some still exist, and you've got still some of the original families. But back in the day, you know, obviously, those children didn't go to school, no public schools. So back in the 20’s Rosenwald schools were built across the country. We had five in Fayette County, only one exists today. And that's where we're going to build eventually a cultural center to recognize and celebrate these hamlets.”

Plomin believes it’s important to recognize the history of freed slaves in Fayette County.

“This is part of all of our heritage, but especially our black citizens. When you think about Lexington, Kentucky, if it wasn't for that group of folks, there wouldn't be the involvement of our community like it is today. They did a lot of hard work. They did a lot of the work. And we need to celebrate that and make sure kids know that their ancestors were part of a very vital part of the growth and the perseverance of Lexington, Kentucky.”

Jim Coleman is working hard to preserve that history, and he wants Coleman Crest Farm to be a part of that for future generations.

“The big hope is that I want to have this farm to where it's in perpetuity. There's some way I can have a partnership with UK or Kentucky State and my fund to where it's a teaching farm where young people, especially disadvantaged youth, women can come out here and experience what I've experienced to learn how to be a farmer, how to understand the business of farming and how to get their own farm. That's what I would love that would be the ideal situation.”

In honor of his wife Cathy, Jim Coleman gave three million dollars to fund scholarships at UK and Howard University. The Cathy and James Coleman Scholarship Fund at UK will help future farmers and leaders.

Coleman says his gift started with the grit and determination his ancestors had 136 years ago.

“I'm just so impressed with all of my ancestors, with all that they didn't have access to all the things that I have today. But they were still able to persevere, kept their focus, operated with a fierce sense of urgency, and accomplished so much with so little.”

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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