Kenneth Coleman, professor of history at the University of Georgia in Athens was the preeminent authority of his generation on colonial and revolutionary Georgia. He wrote what is probably the most widely read history of the state, Georgia History in Outline (1955), which has been revised many times and remains in print. As the recommended text for students preparing for the University System’s Georgia history and government exam, it has proven to be the all-time best-seller of the University of Georgia Press.
Coleman was born in Devereux, in Hancock County, in 1916. As a young boy he enjoyed rural life in the county, where his father ran a general store. His mother, however, wanted her two sons to have a better education than the rural community could offer, so the family moved to Atlanta in the 1920s. There Coleman and his older brother, Lee, graduated from Boys High School.
Coleman earned his A.B. and M.A. degrees from the University of Georgia in 1938 and 1940 respectively. His work with E. Merton Coulter, Georgia’s most prolific historian of the first half of the twentieth century, led him to pursue a career in Georgia history. Coleman’s studies were interrupted during World War II (1941-45), when he served as an army officer in Europe. He completed his doctorate in 1953 at the University of Wisconsin, where Coulter had received his graduate training.
Coleman worked briefly for the U.S. Forest Service and in 1949 began his teaching career in earnest at Georgia State University, which was then the Atlanta Division of the University of Georgia. He was offered positions elsewhere in the University System but held out for a chance to teach in Athens. In 1955 he was appointed to the history faculty at the University of Georgia and moved to Athens with both of his parents, whom he continued to care for until their deaths.
Coleman was a prolific writer. His major work, The American Revolution in Georgia (1958), which was the outgrowth of his Ph.D. dissertation, remains the standard general academic view of that period in Georgia history. Coleman’s other works include Georgia Journeys (with Sarah Temple, 1961), Confederate Athens (1967), and Colonial Georgia (1976). An extraordinary editor, he spearheaded the most comprehensive state history to date, A History of Georgia (1977). Encouraged by Governor Jimmy Carter, who had expressed interest in the compilation of a modern history of the state, Coleman served as general editor of the work and as a contributor, along with several colleagues from the Department of History at the University of Georgia. His long-term work on the Colonial Records of Georgia was one of his favorite contributions to scholarship on Georgia’s early history; he edited, or coedited with Milton Ready, volumes 20 and 27-32 (1976-89). One of his last major projects was coediting, with Charles Stephen Gurr, the two-volume Dictionary of Georgia Biography (1983).
Coleman served on the Board of Curators of the Georgia Historical Society and was a member of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, a member of the Georgia Commission for the National Bicentennial, and the recipient of a 1992 Governor’s Award in the Humanities, which was presented to him by Governor Zell Miller, who had been one of Coleman’s undergraduate students at the university.
Not long after his arrival in Athens, Coleman purchased an antebellum house on Dearing Street, the oldest neighborhood in Athens. He called it the Young Harris House in honor of the home’s nineteenth-century owner, a philanthropist for whom Young Harris College is named. The house was one of Coleman’s great pleasures. After his retirement in 1976, he could often be seen rocking in a tall-backed chair on his wide front porch or walking in the historic neighborhood he loved so much.
Coleman died in Athens on November 27, 1999, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. He bequeathed one-third of his estate to the University of Georgia Press for publications in the field of Georgia studies and one-third to Young Harris College. In death, as in life, he supported and honored what he valued and loved.