My paternal grandfather’s name was Evan Coates. He moved to Phoenix in the mid-1920s. My father was born a few years before that, in 1922, in Deming, New Mexico.

Grandfather Evan moved to Deming, then here, from Georgia. He left because of a family disagreement. My father told me this. He didn’t know the details. Maybe Evan was in search of a better life. I’m not sure he found it in Phoenix. He worked as a hotel custodian and a laborer.

He ended up a widower and living in a boarding house just west of the Capitol. This was in the early ’60s. I visited him once or twice. I was an adolescent, a young teen. He wasn’t unpleasant. Not at all. Maybe a bit matter-of-fact. Not exactly the life of the party.

He didn’t have much to say. And I didn’t bother to ask all the questions I have now. I suppose I asked how he was doing. And I suppose he said, OK.

Mostly, I remember the Bible. He always had a Bible. That was his link to his past, to his Georgia roots. The Bible Belt.

His own father, Nathaniel L. Coates, is buried in Milledgeville, Georgia. I believe he was a Baptist minister. His obituary in The Atlanta Constitution said he was a pottery salesman.

He died in 1924 at the age of 76. He’s buried alongside his wife (my great-grandmother), another son and a daughter. Flannery O’Connor’s grave is a stone’s throw away. If they all got up and started shuffling around, that would make quite the zombie movie.

My great-grandfather died the year before O’Connor was born. So she’d be just another zombie to him. I was introduced to Flannery O’Connor in college. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is probably on every intro-to-literature reading list.

Her characters all seemed to have a screw loose. I was drawn to that.

Nathaniel’s father was Nathaniel Coates. He was indeed a Baptist preacher. A newspaper once endorsed him for Congress, by mistake.

Here’s the Savannah Morning News of July 23, 1874: “We hasten to correct an error. Our allusion yesterday to the Rev. Nathaniel Coates was made under a misapprehension which our Eatonton readers will readily understand. It was the Rev. A.H. Coates whose name we desired to recommend for Congress. If there is a Rev. Nathaniel Coates, we don’t know him.”

Well, he wasn’t without friends, or so I gathered from his obituary in the Macon, Georgia, Weekly Telegraph and Messenger.

He died April 1891. He’d had a stroke a few days before his death. I think he was 67 or thereabouts.

The obit said: “Mr. Coates was a most lovable and beautiful Christian character and was endeared to all with whom he came in contact.”

I’m not sure if his slaves held the same high opinion. My great-great-grandfather had been a farmer once, and owned maybe a dozen slaves. They’re listed in the 1860 census.

He was the last of his kind. A slaveholder, right up to the Civil War. But the family connection to slavery goes back further. Or so it seems. A 1794 Augusta newspaper has a list of sheriff’s sales, property confiscated to pay off debts.

One announces the sale of two African slaves. A 14-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. They have names: Jim and Ransom. The sale was to pay off a debt owed by James Curren, cash only, under the authority of Sheriff Nathaniel Coats.

Any relation? Hard to say. Name spellings change. And a Nathaniel Coates turned up in later editions. Maybe Nathaniel was a more common name then.

In a 1793 newspaper ad, a black man for sale was listed as indentured until January 1794. Then he’d be free.

At least he had hope.

By the mid-1800s, that hope was gone. There was no freedom. Slavery was cradle to grave. The Civil War changed that. It was a war that had to be fought. My great-great-grandfather wasn’t just going to wake up one morning and tell his slaves they’re all free to go. And hand them each $10 on the way out the door.

What happened to them after that? I don’t know. They likely didn’t get the 40 acres each was promised by the federal government. And they dealt with another 100 years of Jim Crow and segregation. Sometimes, they were lynched.

For them and their African-American descendants, it wasn’t a straight line from freedom to the American dream. Reparations are part of the discussion. You can make a case for them. But where to start? I don’t have an answer.

Things are better now, at least where I live. I’m not going to break out into “ebony and ivory living in perfect harmony.” But our own neighborhood is pretty close to that. Go along our street and you’ll see a black family in one house. A white family in the next. And so on.

My great-great-grandfather might not get it. But I’d like to think the end of slavery freed him as well. That he grew into the preacher “endeared to all with whom he came in contact.”


Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at