Business, Migration, Newspaper Articles, North Carolina, Paternal Kin, Photographs

Restaurateur, litigant, race man.

I was running some random Google searches when I ran across this Howard University yearbook entry. Charles C. Coley, class of 1930, was the son of Mack D. and Hattie Wynn Coley, grandson of Frances Aldridge Wynn, and great-grandson of J. Matthew Aldridge.

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In the 1910 census of Brogden township, Wayne County: school teacher and widower Mack D. Coley, 45, and children Blonnie B., 12, Blanche U., 10, Charlie C., 7, and Rosevelt, 5, and great-aunt Kattie, 74.

In the 1920 census of Mount Olive, Brodgen township, Wayne County: on Rail Road Street, teacher Mack D. Coley, 54; wife Lillie, 40, teacher; and children Blonnie, 22, teacher; Blanche, 20;  Charley, 17; Rosevelt, 15; and Harold, 2.

In the 1930 census of Washington, D.C.: at 70 Que Street, Northwest, Charles Coley, 26, and wife Harriett, 20, lodgers in the household of Oscar J. Murchison. Charles worked as a lunchroom waiter. Harriett was a native of Hawaii. They divorced before long, and Charles married Frances Elizabeth Masciana (1920-2010), the District-born daughter of an Italian immigrant father and an Italian-African American mother.

During the 1930s, Great Depression be damned, Coley began to build his entertainment and culinary empires, which eventually came together under C.C. Coley Enterprises, headquartered on U Street, D.C.’s Black Broadway. He rented jukeboxes to establishments across the city and owned several barbecue restaurants and other businesses in Northwest D.C. (More than a few Wayne County home folk newly arrived to the District got jobs working in Coley businesses.) On 16 December 1939, the Pittsburgh Courier screamed “Charge ‘Sabotage’ in Music Box Scandal” over a story whose heading was longer than its column inches.


Coley was unfazed by this dust-up. In 1942, he was able to place an ad in Howard University’s yearbook touting several of his enterprises, the Hollywood Tavern, the Varsity Grill, the New University Pharmacy, the Pig ‘N Pit, and Northwest Amusement Company Records.


In 1942, C.C. put his financial weight behind the Capital Classic, an early fall match-up between black college football teams that anchored black D.C.’s fall social calendar. The Washington Post, in articles published 30 October 1980 and 9 September 1994, described the Classic’s genesis this way:

“Begun in 1942 by now-retired businessmen Charles C. Coley, Jerry Coward and Jessie Dedman, who were later joined by attorney Ernest C. Dickson, the Classic was a black business community extravaganza. From their offices on then fashionable U Street, the entrepreneurs founded the Capital Classic, Ltd. company to lure the interest and dollars of D.C.’s thousands of “colored” fans away from the professional teams which wouldn’t employ or seat blacks properly, and return those dollars to the black college teams.”

“The Classic offered the community, according to one of the printed programs, ‘. . . a massive arena where the radiant beauty of Negro women, who for so long, where beauty is concerned, have been in the shadows — shaded by the accepted Nordic ideal can move proudly to stage center and radiate the bronze charm that will always be the heritage of women of color.'”

Coley was also an early civil rights activist. His financial backing enabled trailblazer Hal Jackson break into D.C. radio, and an op-ed piece in the 14 April 1943 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier gave details of more direct action. Angered by the difficulty he had catching cabs in Washington, Coley contacted the Urban League with a proposal. He would pay the salary for a man to work full-time tracking instances of discrimination by cabbies. “Mr. Coley has these taxicab drivers who pass up passengers, white or colored, at the Union Station or anywhere else in the city, fighting for their licenses.” The city’s Public Utilities Commission was shamed into putting its own spotters on the street. “Discrimination is being met a knockout blow — not by what Mr. Coley said, but what he did. … This story is … being passed along for the benefit of some Negroes who, in similar situations, never think of putting their money where their mouth is.”

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Baltimore Afro-American, 13 November 1948.

Despite the photo op above, the Classic soon met difficulties behind-scenes. Coley withdrew temporarily from active promotion in 1945, and Dr. Napoleon Rivers replaced him as guarantor. Quickly, according to a federal lawsuit, Rivers began to “usurp control” and failed to pay Coley’s partners their shares. In ’47, he even set up a rival match — the National Classic — at Griffin Stadium. (For details, see the 23 October 1948 edition of the New York Age.  The National Classic, by the way, moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1954 and morphed into the C.I.A.A. football championship game. See the Pittsburgh Courier, 23 October 1954.) The Classic recovered and prospered until fading away in the 1960s.

Charles C. Coley died 11 April 1986 in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery.

Wash Post 16 Apr 1986


C.C. Coley’s Pig ‘N Pit Restaurant at 6th and Florida Avenue, Washington DC. This undated Scurlock Studios image is found in Box 618.04.75, Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.


21 thoughts on “Restaurateur, litigant, race man.

  1. Pingback: The Hawaiian princess. | Scuffalong: Genealogy.

  2. Pingback: Treasures. | Scuffalong: Genealogy.

  3. Aloha family and friends from the Big Island of Hawaii. I am Charles Cromwell Coley Dempster, 2nd son of Oscar P. and Laulupe K. Dempster. I’m 61 now and was 9 yrs. old the last time I was with my grandfather in the summer of 64. He was to me at that age a loving and strict grandfather and busy businessman. My 2 brothers and I were taken along on a few purchasing runs for his business ventures that summer. Grandfather Coley was always busy and not one to waste time. I should have been there for Grandma Francis and family at the end, but was not mature enough. My apologies again, 30 yrs. late! Love, health and good will to you all who are still here and to those I’ve missed. Aloha, 9/23/2016

    • What a pleasure to hear from you! I’m so glad you found my blog. I just returned today from a week in DC, and while there visited with a cousin who arrived there from Dudley in 1940. She filled in occasionally as cashier in your grandfather’s restaurants and had many fond memories of him. If you haven’t seen the posts already, I’ve also blogged here of his father Mack D. Coley and grandfather John Matthew Aldridge. More to come.

  4. Horace W. Barnett. Kr says:

    I am so happy a article has been written about the significance of this black gentleman in a time of so much hatred and bigotry. He was certainly a pioneer for black the entrepreneurial spirit transcends today. He was a good man, a smart man, a family man and my great uncle. Thanks so much for this historical account of his life. Horace W. Barnett, Jr

  5. Horace W. Barnett. Jr. says:

    I am so happy a article has been written about the significance of this black gentleman in a time of so much hatred and bigotry. He was certainly a pioneer for black the entrepreneurial spirit transcends today. He was a good man, a smart man, a family man and my great uncle. Thanks so much for this historical account of his life. Horace W. Barnett, Jr

  6. RetrieverGirl says:

    Thank you for this article about the life of Mr. Charles C. Coley. Mr. Coley was a huge influence in my grandmother’s (Annie Webb) decision to go into the restaurant business. With his mentorship and guidance, she was able to secure her restaurant license to take over and run one of his establishments which she later bought from him and owned for another 21 years! I have heard her speak of Mr. Coley over the years but had no idea what a prominent figure he was in the DC business and civic community. Thanks for sharing this important and inspiring history. I read your post to my grandmother and she nodded the entire time as so much of it resonated w her!

      • RetrieverGirl says:

        Here’s an excerpt…

        This man, Charles C. Coley, perhaps changed the trajectory of my family’s life. I’ve heard my grandmother, Annie Webb, speak of him many times over the years (she referred to him as “Mr. C.C. Coley”) and talked about how she worked for him as a cook and later as an assistant manager in one of his many restaurants around the DC area, in her early years when she first migrated from NC to DC. One day he said to her, “If you can run this restaurant, then you can run your own restaurant.” He explained that she would need to get proper food training and get a license to prepare and sell food in an establishment. With his guidance and mentorship, she did just that. He then turned over to her what would then be called Ann’s Shrimp Hut – located near Howard University (ironically, she did not sell shrimp as she didn’t care much for it but she could not afford to get the marquee sign changed so she just went with it!). She rented the restaurant for the first year then bought him out and owned and operated it for another 21 years! Her restaurant served Howard University students for many years (she accepted their meal cards so that students could eat breakfast and lunch in her establishment). To this day, several of the students who frequented her restaurant stay in touch w her. Her restaurant was such a community favorite that it survived the MLK riots (w/ no boarding up). I recall many of afternoons after school hanging out at my grandmothers restaurant and being completely in awe of how she managed everything (from greeting the customers, taking orders, helping w cooking and managing the staff and daily operating affairs) and being proud all at the same time. I’m sure it’s where I get my “roll up your sleeves and get it done” work ethic.

        Mr. Coley saw in my grandmother what she couldn’t see in herself…a business woman…an entrepreneur…an important pillar of the community . Thank you, Mr. Coley for using your platform, insight and knowledge to inspire and guide others into the world of entrepreneurship and business ownership. I am deeply grateful for your foresight and mentorship.

        I was so inspired by my grandmothers stories of Mr. CC Coley that I decided when I was visiting w her last weekend to research him and quickly came across this awesome blog about him and his life on a genealogy website…

      • Thank you so much for sharing! CC Coley’s restaurants were a way station for so many North Carolinians arriving in DC, including members of our extended family. My cousin Onra, who passed last year at age 100, spoke of good times subbing at his cafes.

      • RetrieverGirl says:

        You’re welcome! And thank you for capturing this rich history! This was a goldmine for me. It validated everything my grandmother had shared w me about Mr. Coley! I look forward to following your site and reading more of your posts. I love genealogy and learning about my family as well as other families history.

  7. Charles C.C. Dempster says:

    This is Charles Cromwell Coley Dempster returning after a 5yr 8 month hiatus in what is left of these United States Of America. Strength and Honor be our call to those of us who remain! We’ve lost 3 family members of the Coley ohana in the past 5 yrs. C.C.Coley’s great-grandson Dillon Na Moku Eha Dempster, 39 yrs. young passed away on 5/3/22 in Fredericksburg, VA. Waiting for more info on his health. C.C. Coley’s daughter, my mom, Laulupe Kaleilani Dempster passed away on 2/8/19 peacefully we were told. I was not there for her but Andrew was. He is the only one there in Waianae now. C.C.Coley’s grandson, my younger brother John left us on the morning of. 3/7/17. He passed on right there at home due to a cardiac arrest. Mom found him lying on the floor in the extension part of the house. John was only 60 yrs. of age. I’m now 67 and Andrew is 68. Don’t really feel all that much time has come and gone. Wanting to be here for Theresa and Kiana and anyone else that might benefit from it. Stay as close as you can to your loved ones. Strength and Honor to all the family, the young and the old, the women and the men alike, watch each other’s 6! We are not living in the same USA we were born in I just remembered that my oldest Charles Cromwell Coley Dempster J.R. lives and works in D.C. proper. He is employed as an armed security team member 2 blocks from the Capital Mall. He took care of Dillon’s cremation arrangements there in Fredericksburg,Va. The funeral is Mullin &. ?

  8. Horace Barnett says:

    Hello Charles, this Horace Barnett uncle CC’s grand nephew. It was a pleasure to read your account about our family. My mother and your were first cousins and they stay in contact with each for so many years, she passed in 2017. Carroll told me that he had talked to you recently. Stay well and tell Andrew I said hello.

  9. Charles C.C.Dempster says:

    Hello Horace Barnett. This is your cousin Charles returning your aloha to us out here in Hawaii. I’m unable to see what I’m writing to you so I hope that the spelling is decent. We’re hanging on to our sanity out in this 50th state where they tax and raise fees for anything and everything that they can think of! At this time of my life I realize where I was with my eyes wide shut for most of my adult life. My wife Theresa and I have seen this world for what it really is to those who will not see that we’ve all been locked up in this matrix called the U.S.A. But in these last 4yrs. I’ve had my eyes and ears cleaned and I love it. Today is the 4th an…..I can’t see what I’m writing so please excuse the errors in diction. Mom’s passing date is today so went logging on this iPad to reread her obituary info and I saw the posting of my youngest son Dillon’s passing on this site. I honestly forgot to check back to see if my posting of late last year had been accepted and posted. Just thought I’d mention that I don’t carry a cell phone, never have and never will. Just like musician Joe Walsh says “ I’m an analog man “. No texts sent, no emails either! I can only snail search for info or shopping online. The funeral home that handled Dillon’s services is the only other avenue I use to reach out and touch someone. My wife Theresa and I hope all are well and of good spirit where you are. I’ll make a point of checking this site weekly or more. Go with Happiness cousin. Glad that I’ve found your contact here. We who remain must be as sheepdogs for those who still question Why all this? Strength and Honor…watch each other’s 6 … stay frosty for we must be Divergant during these times! Aloha and Imua to the family…Cousin Charles Cromwell Coley Dempster from Glenwood,Fern Forrest, Hawaii

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