Teacher Abe Coleman, who mentored students at Liberty City school, dies of COVID at 55

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Abe Coleman, a longtime Holmes Elementary teacher and mentor to thousands of young men in Miami — “one of the best that the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project ever had” — died Wednesday, Sept. 1, after being hospitalized with COVID-19.

Coleman’s wife, Inez Jackson, agrees with that assessment of Coleman by leaders within the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a mentoring program founded in 1993 by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson when she was a Miami-Dade County School Board member. According to 5000 Role Models, its in-school mentoring and dropout prevention program is designed to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and to help guide minority kids toward manhood and college.

“You couldn’t ask for a better man than Abe Coleman. He was the best,” his wife said.

Coleman was 55.

“He was amazing, absolutely amazing,” Wilson said. “He was a man for all seasons. There was nothing you could ask him to do for children that he wouldn’t do. He took them to jails. He took them to college tours. To Frost Museum. He took them to Vizcaya. For those little children, this is such a huge, huge loss.”

Coleman’s mentoring

Holmes Elementary School math teacher Abe Coleman in class with the students he had mentored as part of his leadership role with the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Program at the Liberty City School.
Holmes Elementary School math teacher Abe Coleman in class with the students he had mentored as part of his leadership role with the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Program at the Liberty City School.

Teaching and mentoring at Holmes was, quite literally, home for Coleman. He attended the elementary school on Northwest 67th Street in Miami-Dade’s Liberty City neighborhood. From the time he was a student there in the early 1970s, Coleman saw a richness and vibrancy among its students. He endeavored for decades to contribute to their futures.

“People think because Holmes is in the inner city it’s all Black, but Holmes Elementary is richly integrated and so he had little boys of all stripes and colors that he would mentor,” Wilson said. “Even during the pandemic, when half the students were at home and schools were shut down and people were wearing masks and people were social distancing he was having Zoom meetings with these little boys at home. He never stopped and those little children are devastated.”

Wilson said Coleman, who had partnered with federal judge and former Holmes student Rodney Smith in mentoring, had told school Principal Launa Fuller, fellow teachers and Marcus Bright from 5000 Role Models that he had contracted COVID. He told them he was going to the hospital.

That was the last his colleagues had heard from the hospitalized Coleman, who started teaching at Holmes in March 1989.

“Everyone was expecting him to come back to school and no one was expecting him to die,” Wilson said. “Next thing we knew, they were calling us to tell us that he passed.”

In a statement, 5000 Role Models said: “We grieve with the family of the husband and father of one son and the rest of his family, the Role Model boys, the staff, and students of Holmes Elementary School where Mr. Coleman was a third-grade math teacher for 31 years.

“The Role Models Chapter at Holmes Elementary was one of the strongest among the more than 100 chapters across the Miami-Dade Public School District. Due to his unwavering commitment, Abe Coleman will be remembered as a valued teacher, mentor to the boys in the program, and as a benefit to the Liberty City community that the school serves.”

Holmes Elementary School math teacher Abe Coleman with one of the students he had mentored as part of his leadership role with the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Program at the Liberty City School.
Holmes Elementary School math teacher Abe Coleman with one of the students he had mentored as part of his leadership role with the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Program at the Liberty City School.

Teachers’ deaths from COVID

Coleman is part of a growing number of South Florida educators who have lost their lives to COVID as the highly contagious delta variant continues to run rampant in Florida. Coleman was not vaccinated, Wilson said. His wife, who had the earlier strain of COVID last year, was vaccinated, Wilson said.

In Miami-Dade, Lillian Smith, a first-grade teacher at Dr. William A. Chapman Elementary in Naranja, died of COVID-19 — as did her daughter, Lakisha Williams, who worked as a cafeteria manager at Chapman, the Miami Herald reported in late August. Neither was vaccinated. Broward Teachers Union also announced that two of its teachers and a teaching assistant died just before the school year was to start in August.

In addition, United Teachers of Dade said that Michael Thomas, a 15-year technology teacher at William H. Turner Technical Arts High School, died of COVID complications on Monday, Aug. 30, according to WPLG-Local 10. He was in school only two days this fall before he had to go to the hospital.

“The number of MDCPS family members who have passed away from COVID over the past 2 weeks is devastating. We urgently need education & vaccination deployed to these vulnerable communities before they are decimated by the virus,” the union tweeted.

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Sending a message

Congresswoman Frederica Smith Wilson among students during the 5000 Role Model of Excellence Foundation 2021 Wilson Scholars academic signing ceremony at Jesus People Ministries Church International in Miami Gardens on Sunday, June 27, 2021.
Congresswoman Frederica Smith Wilson among students during the 5000 Role Model of Excellence Foundation 2021 Wilson Scholars academic signing ceremony at Jesus People Ministries Church International in Miami Gardens on Sunday, June 27, 2021.

“The 5000 Role Models held press conferences encouraging teachers and educators to be vaccinated,” Wilson said. “We ... were hoping they all would be before school opened. This is a shocker.”

Wilson hopes Coleman’s death, a man she called an energetic role model, sends out a message to others who may fear, or question, what’s in the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines that are in use. On Aug. 23, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, making it the first to be upgraded from an emergency-use authorization.

“I’m hoping this will give them the courage to take the shot,” she said. “So many people take cough syrup and don’t know what’s in that! You drink a beer and you don’t know what’s in that! It doesn’t matter! If you are a grown person look on your left or right arm. There is a scar and that scar is there because you took a vaccination and that’s the reason you’re still alive.”

Smallpox, the disease Wilson cites whose vaccination left a mark, usually on the upper left arm, was destroyed after a decade’s worth of vaccinations promoted by the World Health Organization began in the late 1960s, according to WebMD.

What mattered to Coleman was making sure his young students knew who they were and that they took pride in their heritage.

Back in 1994, Coleman taught the 45-minute AESOP classes at Liberty City’s Holmes. AESOP, for then-Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler’s Afrocentric Enhancement and Self-Esteem Opportunity Program, was then used in about 40 Miami-Dade elementary, middle and high schools to teach Black students about Africa and the history of Blacks in America.

In one of his classes at the time, Coleman’s third-graders had discussed Nelson Mandela’s then recent swearing-in as president of South Africa, the Miami Herald reported. The elementary school kids reviewed a math lesson from their regular class using famous African-American women in the word problems.

“They’ve been taught their history started with slavery, and that’s not true,” Coleman told the Herald in 1994. “I’m telling these kids, ‘You should feel proud.’”

Holmes Elementary School math teacher Abe Coleman with some of the students he had mentored as part of his leadership role with the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Program at the Liberty City School.
Holmes Elementary School math teacher Abe Coleman with some of the students he had mentored as part of his leadership role with the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Program at the Liberty City School.

Survivors, services

In addition to his wife, Inez, Coleman’s survivors include his son Abe Coleman III, his mother Eva Mae Coleman and his sister. Services are pending.

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