Posted On: 09/22/2017 - 12:03pm, Posted By: Christine Engels, Archives Manager, Manuscripts Department
Virginia Keys Jones Coffey, one of the foremost civil rights leaders in Cincinnati, was born in Wheeling, West Virginia on December 14, 1904. Determined that their children would attend integrated schools, her parents, Mary and Edward Jones, moved the family to Grand Rapids, Michigan when Virginia was 4 years old. Virginia graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in education, studied sociology at the University of Cincinnati, and received a master’s degree from Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Coffey moved to Cincinnati in the early 1920s where her first job was teaching in the city’s all-black Stowe School. Distressed to find Cincinnati deeply segregated, her stay might have been short if Theodore Berry had not encouraged her to stay and join the local chapter of the NAACP. She left teaching after several years to devote her life to tireless work for racial equality.
From 1926 to 1931, she was secretary of the West End branch of the YWCA and became its executive director in 1932. In the 1940s she married William A. Coffey, organized the first Girl Scout troop for African-American girls, and accepted the position of director of religious education and youth activities for Carmel Presbyterian Church. In 1948 she was named deputy director of the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee, predecessor to the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission. She held this position until 1962 when she resigned to become community relations supervisor for Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses (1962-1965).
Virginia Coffey was a leader in working toward removing racial restrictions in restaurants, businesses, and public facilities. In the 1950s, during her tenure on the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee, there were attempts to effect institution changes within the city to advance the civil rights of citizens. Several events stand out as examples of these efforts: integration of the city’s swimming pools beginning with Owl’s Nest Park in O’Bryonville in June 1950 and the opening of Coney Island amusement park’s gates to African-Americans in 1961.
Coffey became executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission in 1968 and served in this position until her resignation December 31, 1973. She was the first African American and the first woman to hold this position. In the 1960s, Virginia Coffey directed the Memorial Community Center (1965-1968), and was a human relations consultant for the University of Cincinnati. She also served on the board of the Hamilton County Welfare Department, on the president’s council of Xavier University and the advisory council of the Cincinnati Community Chest (now United Appeal). She retired in 1978.
Virginia Coffey was recognized for her successes in the fields of human relations and civil rights. In 1968 she was voted an Enquirer Woman of the Year. She received the Governor’s Award for Community Action in 1973, the Good Neighbor Award in 1989, and the Great Living Cincinnatian Award in 1993.
Virginia Keys Jones Coffey died on August 26, 2003 and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.
Coffey’s manuscript collection includes material on Cincinnati’s participation in the national March on Washington in 1963 as well as some of her correspondence and awards.
Please see our Guide to African American Resources at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives for more information on Cincinnati’s African American history.