When poorly educated black grandmothers came to Amityville from the South to raise their grandchildren, Dorothy “Dottie” Coleman stepped in to help with the children’s homework.
And when female high school basketball players weren’t widely encouraged to pursue the game professionally, Coleman let the girls know the sky was their only limit.
Coleman, a resident of Amityville for 65 years, died Sept. 16 of heart failure at Huntington Hospital. She was 70.
Born in the Bronx before her family moved to Amityville when she was 5, Coleman was known as a strong voice for racial and gender quality and as someone with a true sense of community.
“She got a lot of that from her mother,” Coleman’s niece, Erica Lewis Brown, said.
Brown said Coleman’s 94-year-old mother, Phyllis Walker James, who now lives in Lakeland, Florida, wanted to move to Long Island to raise her five children in a more suburban area. But she didn’t want them to ever forget those who didn’t have what they had.
Coleman’s late father, Willie Coleman, had been a pastor at a church in the Bronx, so helping others was a part of Coleman’s family life.
“My grandmother [James] used to take the neighbors’ children to the park or to the beach or on family vacations when they didn’t have the money,” Brown, 38, of Huntington, said. “She loved kids.”
Coleman, a Copiague High School graduate, loved kids, too, Brown said. She said her aunt received a master’s degree in education from Springfield College in Massachusetts, but when she couldn’t find a teaching job, she became an employment specialist with the Suffolk County Department of Labor, where she worked for 36 years.
Brown said Coleman found other ways to help children. Coleman never married and had no children of her own.
“A lot of grandmothers in Amityville came from the South in the ’50s and ’60s to raise their grandchildren, but they couldn’t help their grandchildren with their homework,” Brown said. “Dottie would help them get tutors.”
Brown said Coleman also tried to bring attention to many racial inequities.
“She couldn’t understand why Copiague High School students had brand-new books and in Amityville, where the students were black and Hispanic, the books would be falling apart or they shared books and couldn’t bring them home,” Brown said.
As an assistant to girls’ basketball coach Claude Byer at Amityville Memorial High School, Coleman encouraged the girls to stick to their books no matter what.
“A lot of girls went to college because of Dottie’s influence,” Byer said.
Byer, 72, of Central Islip, said in the 1970s Coleman started “Operation Make It,” a summertime basketball program for local children.
“She was a tremendous motivator,” Byer said.
In addition to James and Brown, Coleman is survived by her brother, Charles Walker of Amityville, and sisters Patricia Walker McCloud of Lakeland, and Priscilla Walker Stephens of Winter Haven, Florida.
A wake will be held Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. at Prayer Tabernacle Church in Amityville. A funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the church, followed by burial in Amityville Cemetery.