John A. Coleman was born a slave in 1852 in Talladega County, Alabama. After he received his freedom at the end of the Civil War, Coleman attended the newly established Talladega College for three years. He worked on a Mississippi River steamboat and then migrated to New York City, Duluth, Minnesota and Chicago before settling in Seattle in 1889 where he took a job as a porter.
Although Coleman’s political allegiance changed in Seattle –he switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party– his political ambitions did not, and he emerged as one of the leading spokesmen for the region’s small number of black Democrats in the early 1890s. Coleman was instrumental in helping former Arkansas State Legislator Conrad Rideout organize Seattle’s first black Democratic club in 1891.
The next year Coleman ran unsuccessfully for the King County office of wreckmaster, the county official responsible for salvaging shipwrecks and clearing industrial logging debris along the coastal areas near Seattle. He ran on the Democratic ticket against black Republican nominee Seaborn Collins. Coleman became the first black Democrat nominated for public office in King County, and the contest with Collins was the first time in Washington history that two African Americans campaigned for the same position. After the campaign Coleman returned to the Republican Party and ran a second time for wreckmaster as the GOP nominee in 1894. This time he won the office.