Frank Charles Coleman (1890-1967)

Coleman posing in rounded glasses, suit and tie
Frank Coleman, n.d.
Courtesy Howard University

Frank Charles Coleman was an American physicist who co-founded Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, one of the oldest African American Greek letter organizations, with more than  750 chapters globally. He was married to Mary Edna Brown, one of the Founders of Delta Sigma Theta, and his sister Grace Coleman would become Delta Sigma Theta’s president in 1914.

Coleman was born in Washington, D.C., on July 11, 1890, one of eight children of Benjamin Coleman, a government employee, and Frances Ella, a homemaker. The younger Coleman graduated from M Street High School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School) in 1908, and in 1909, he entered Howard University to major in physics. 

At Howard, Coleman wrote for the student newspaper, The Howard Journal, and was a Kappa Sigma Debating Society member. Coleman spent most of his time in the office of Dr. Ernest E. Just, the acclaimed South Carolinian biologist, who would identify the fundamental role of the cell surface in the development of organisms. On November 17, 1911, in Just’s office, Coleman and classmates Edgar Amos Love and Oscar James Cooper formed Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. with Just as their advisor. 

On December 15, 1911, fourteen young men formed the charter group known as the Alpha chapter. Love, Cooper, and Coleman were elected the first Basileus, Keeper of Records, and Keeper of Seals, respectively. Oscar James Cooper became the Fraternity’s second Grand Basileus in 1912 and authorized the establishment of a second chapter on the Lincoln University campus in Pennsylvania. Howard University officials stepped in, refusing to recognize the Fraternity as a national organization. They wanted to restrict the men to a single chapter, which they refused, organizing a protest that forced the administration to back down. 

After graduating in 1913, Coleman became an instructor in the physics department. He wanted to pursue an advanced degree, but the start of World War I and America’s involvement in supporting the Allies delayed that plan. Coleman was stationed at Des Moines, Iowa, with the 17th Provisional Training Regiment and rose to first lieutenant in 1917 while at the camp. On May 25, 1918, he married Mary Edna Brown. She died during childbirth the following year.

In 1919, he left the Army and began teaching physics at Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington, D.C. He rejoined the physics department at Howard as an adjunct instructor. With the encouragement of Dr. Just, who had earned his Ph.D. in 1916 from the University of Chicago, Coleman enrolled in their Master’s program, graduating in 1922. In 1923, Howard hired him as a full-time faculty member, and the year after, he received tenure in the Department of Physics, where he remained for his entire working life, later serving as the department chair.

Professor Frank Charles Coleman was a member of the Boys Committee of the YMCA, a Freemason, an American Legionnaire, and a Congregationalist.

He died in Prince George’s County, Maryland, on February 24, 1967. He was 77 years old.