Virginia Keyes Jones Coffey, one of the most celebrated and humble African American female Civil Rights leaders in Cincinnati, Ohio, played a pivotal role in several protest campaigns such as the movement to integrate the city’s public swimming pools and the opening of the gates of Coney Island Amusement Park to African Americans during the early 1960s.
For her efforts, she won many awards, such as being honored with the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper’s “Women of the Year” award in 1968 and given a Great Living Cincinnatian plaque in 1993. Despite such honors, many people are not aware of her greatness.
Born in 1904 in Wheeling, West Virginia, her parents, Mary and Edward Jones, were determined to find better employment opportunities and a well-rounded integrated public educational system. When Virginia was four years old, she moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. After she graduated from South High School in Grand Rapids, young Virginia enrolled into Western Michigan University, found in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
While at Western Michigan University, Virginia quickly became fascinated with education and obtained an undergraduate degree from the university in this field. Eventually, Virginia earned a master’s degree from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
During the early 1920s, Virginia officially moved to Cincinnati, Ohio (also known as the “Queen City”). She got her first job as a teacher at the all-Black Harriet Beecher Stowe School. The Stowe School was a public segregated educational facility that also periodically received several hundred dollars private funds.
Eventually, based on the school’s academic reputation, the Stowe School became the premiere African American school in the city and thus started to attract thousands of students. For example, enrollment in the Stowe School increased from 350 in 1914 to 1,300 in 1922.
The school curriculum included reading, writing, math, and vocational training and agricultural education. Distressed by the harsh segregationist patterns and discriminatory practices within the city, Virginia almost left Cincinnati.
However, several conversations and many words of encouragement from Theodore “Ted” Berry persuaded her to stay in Cincinnati and join the Cincinnati NAACP that moved her to stay in the city. Subsequently, Coffey left the teaching profession to devote her full-time efforts to the causes of civil rights and social justice.
Between 1926 and 1931, Virginia joined and served as Secretary for the West End branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), which she held for five years. From 1932 to 1937, Virginia functioned as the organization’s Executive Director.
While working in these positions, she was able to find and work with many similarly focused organizations to challenge various segregation and discrimination practices throughout the city, especially in the areas of education, employment, and housing. Simultaneously Virginia obtained another undergraduate degree, but this time from the University of Cincinnati, in sociology.
In 1941, Virginia married William A. Coffey, an Assistant Supervisor for Sinton Park and a longtime advocate for the YWCA and youth development programs throughout the city of Cincinnati.
After about a three-year break from community advocacy upon her marriage, Virginia became a youth worker and Director of the Christian Education for the Carmel Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati. Simultaneously she organized the first African American Girl Scout troop in the city. During this same period, Virginia also developed and implemented a comprehensive plan to integrate Cincinnati’s YWCA branch on all levels.
As a result, of her work in these areas, in 1948, Virginia Coffey was offered and accepted a position as Assistant Director of the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee (MFRC). In 1943, this Committee emerged because of the various racial tensions and urban upheavals that had developed throughout the nation during World War II.
The belief was that this Committee would prevent such disturbances from occurring in Cincinnati. As a result, the MFRC stated as its primary goal, “to study and work out the problems connected with promoting harmony and understanding among the various racial, industrial, religious, and other groups in the community.”
Coffey remained in this position for fourteen years and spent most of her time working with many public and private organizations to pressure the local government to enact laws to ensure racial equality and social justice for the city’s African American residents.
During these years, Coffey led several protest campaigns in the city, such as the movement to integrate the city’s swimming pool, starting at the Owl’s Nest Park in O’Bryonville in 1950.
In 1962, Coffey resigned from her position at the MFRC to become a Community Relations Supervisor at the Seven Hill Neighborhood Houses, where she worked in three neighborhoods – Avondale, Riverview, and the West End.
The Seven Hill Neighborhood Houses agency developed because of the merger between the Findlay Market Neighborhood House and the Riverview Neighbor House groups during the 1960s. Coffey’s new organization was not complicated because she had previously served on both groups’ boards.
However, it was years as the Executive Director of the Memorial Community Center, with locations in both Over-the-Rhine and Mount Auburn, established during the mid-1960s, which provided the most challenges for Coffey.
In short, Coffey had to develop a much knowledge and understanding of the history and culture of the needs and wants of thousands of newly arriving Appalachian and African American residents into the city in such a brief time.
But Coffey’s experience as a member of the Appalachian Council of Greater Cincinnati and her background working with many African American-led organizations provided her with the knowledge and skills needed to do her job with great precision.
Several years later, in 1968, the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission – CHRC (formerly the MFRC) offered Coffey the opportunity to return to their organization. She quickly accepted the Executive Director’s position and became the first African American woman to hold such a title.
During the next six years, Coffey revitalized the Human Relations Commission and gradually developed the organization into a modern city-wide resource facility that sought to decrease racial and economic tension throughout the “Queen City.”
In 1974, Coffey left the CHRC to become a “human relations consultant.” But she was quickly recruited by Dr. Warren Bennis, who served as the President of the University of Cincinnati (UC), to help the university develop and implement a comprehensive plan for racial inclusion and equality.
Coffey took on her new role with the same vigor and passion she used for over twenty years in similar positions. As a tribute to her service, in 1977, President Bennis awarded Coffey the “President’s Award for Excellence.”
Although she was getting older, Coffey continued her work to make racial equality and social justice for thousands of African Americans in Cincinnati. She never rested. For instance, while serving as a consultant for UC, Coffey was on the Board of the Hamilton County Welfare Department, was a member of the President’s Council at Xavier University, and was on the Advisory Council of Cincinnati Community Chest (today is known as United Way). She also was a member of the Cincinnati (OH) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She was also on the Board of the Walnut Hills Area Council.
Despite her death at the age of 99, Coffey’s legacy and accomplishments live on within the various agencies, commissions, and committees, as well as the people she served as a trailblazer for civil rights and social justice in Cincinnati, Ohio, the “Queen City.”
Virginia Coffey Papers, 1935 – 1984 (Cincinnati Historical Society Library and Archives – Cincinnati Museum Center)
Adeline Harris Collection (Cincinnati Historical Society Library and Archives – Cincinnati Museum Center)
“Mrs. Berry Submits Report on Swimming Pool Incident,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 27 June 1950
Josten, Margaret, “No-Nonsense Beliefs Mark CHRC Chief – Mrs. Coffey Gets Commission Post,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 5 January 1968
Horstman, Berry M. “Virginia Coffey – In Fight for Civil Rights, She Was Out Front,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 24 March 1999
Goodman, Rebecca. “Virginia Coffey Fought against Discrimination,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 30 August 2003
About the author, Eric R. Jackson, Ph.D.
With twenty-five years of academic experience at the university level, Eric R. Jackson, Ph.D. teaches in the fields of American and African American History/Studies, Race Relations, and Peace Studies.
He has published more than 50 publications, including journals such as Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, the Journal of African American History, and the International Journal of World Peace. Dr. Jackson also received the Goodwill Ambassador for the Golden Rule Award in 2016 and the Second International World Civility Award from IChange Nations in 2017.
Eric R. Jackson, Ph.D.
Professor of History; Director, Black World Studies Program
Northern Kentucky University
Phone – 859.572.6146