SEDALIA – For the first time in over 20 years, Maria Cole, widow of music legend Nat “King” Cole, visited the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum State Historic Site in Sedalia Monday, June 9. Mrs. Cole spoke at a ceremony honoring her aunt Dr. Brown and received the Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown Living Legacy Award.
The Third Annual Celebration of Remembrance was held from 12 noon-2 p.m. and featured remarks by several local and state officials, including state representatives H.M. “Mickey” Michaux Jr. (D-Durham), Alma Adams (D-Guilford), Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson, N.C. Office of Archives and History Deputy Secretary Dr. Jeffrey Crow and N.C. Historic Sites Director Keith Hardison. Following a luncheon and presentation of a commemorative quilt to Mrs. Cole, Palmer Memorial Institute graduate J.C. Scarboro Jr. of Durham and Maria Cole laid a wreath on the grave of Dr. Brown on the state historic site’s grounds. That evening, Mrs. Cole was feted at a reception in the O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro.
The Charlotte Hawkins Brown Memorial was once the home of the Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI), one of America’s most prestigious African American prep schools in the first half of the 20th century. It was also Maria Cole’s childhood home and where she was educated.
The state historic site honors the late Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who began teaching children in Sedalia in 1901. For 50 years after founding PMI in 1902, Dr. Brown labored unceasingly to educate young people, building what started out as a tiny academy into a highly renowned African American school. Mrs. Cole played a key role in helping make the former school a state historic site, along with the late Marie Hill Gibbs of Greensboro, another PMI graduate.
Known for her polish, jazz career and commitment to charitable causes including eradicating cancer, the disease that took her husband’s life in 1965, Maria Hawkins Cole was born in Boston in 1922. Her father Mingo Hawkins worked for the U.S. Postal Service at a time when civil service jobs were highly sought after by African Americans. When Maria was only two, her mother died in childbirth, leaving the widower to care for three little girls alone. Two decades before, Hawkins’ sister Dr. Brown had founded PMI and when Maria was seven or eight, she and her older sister Charlotte went to live with their aunt.
Cole grew up at PMI, meeting such towering figures as W.E.B. Dubois, Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt. Though living in Greensboro, the pretty little girl had to face the same discrimination southern African Americans routinely endured during the “Jim Crow” period, her life at PMI was sheltered and comfortable. Here she shared with Dr. Brown and her sister a roomy two-story house called “Canary Cottage,” named for its sparkling yellow color.
Like all Palmerites, Maria met the high standards of discipline, honesty, manners and academic achievement her aunt emphasized at the school. Her life was filled with studying and attending church. In a biography on Nat King Cole which Maria co-authored, she says, “Christmas and travel were the rare fun times, however, when we were in my aunt’s charge. She ruled supreme over our lives, demanding discipline, rigorous school work, love of God and attention to our manners.”
Always intrigued by the entertainment world, young Maria Cole took voice and piano lessons; popular music was her love. After graduating from Palmer in 1938, she returned to Boston, attending a clerical college by day and working with a jazz orchestra by night. Before long, Maria was singing with the band and moved to New York to pursue a music career. Dr. Brown had other ideas though and got her niece a clerical job at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Still committed to music, Maria soon was back in New York, singing under a stage name with jazz great Benny Carter’s band so she wouldn’t embarrass her family. In 1943, she married Spurgeon Ellington, a famed Tuskegee Airmen flyer during World War II. Tragically, Maria’s husband was killed during a routine training flight shortly after the war ended.
Though Maria Cole performed briefly with both Count Basie and swing music innovator Fletcher Henderson, her big break came with Duke Ellington, Mr. “A-Train” himself. After hearing tapes of Cole singing, Ellington hired Maria as a vocalist with his legendary orchestra. She stayed with him until 1946 when she began soloing at the city’s Club Zanzibar as an opening act for the Mills Brothers. It was here where she met her future husband Nat “King” Cole.
In 1948 Maria Hawkins and Nat “King” Cole were married by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. at Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in a ceremony attended by numerous celebrities. Though she disapproved of her niece’s match, Dr. Brown attended the wedding.
That same year, Nat King Cole became one of the first African American music stars to perform on radio where he sang such hits as “Nature Boy.” His success enabled the couple to buy a mansion in Los Angeles. Soon after Maria’s marriage, her sister Carol and her husband both died, leaving behind a small daughter. The Coles decided to adopt “Cookie,” and Dr. Brown also sought custody of the four-year-old.
Throughout the 1950s, Nat King Cole’s fortunes continued to rise with his many hit songs, such as “Mona Lisa” and “Unforgettable.” The Coles became increasingly prosperous and socially prominent. In 1950, their first child Natalie was born. She was followed by the late Nat Kelly Cole, adopted in 1961. Maria gave birth to twin girls Timolin and Casey in 1961.
Nat and Maria traveled throughout Europe in the ‘50s and Maria even returned to performing, recording several songs with Nat for Capitol Records. She sang live at top venues in California and on the East Coast. Though a bout with ulcers temporarily derailed Nat’s touring schedule in 1953, after recovering, he went on to sing to great acclaim in the British Isles, Holland, Scandinavia and Latin America. During this time, Nat also acted in seven movies and made guest appearances on several TV programs. In 1956, he became the first African American to host a national television network program.
At the height of his career, Nat King Cole made about $3,000,000 a year on recordings and performances. Sadly, in late 1964, doctors diagnosed Nat with advanced lung cancer. He died on February 25, 1965, leaving behind a grieving family and countless saddened fans.
After her husband’s death, Maria kept Nat’s legacy alive while caring for their five children. She produced a James Baldwin play, sang on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” created the Cole Cancer Foundation and more. In 1969, Maria remarried and returned to Massachusetts with her younger children. Though this union did not last, her life has continued to be full.
In 1987, she was interviewed by her daughter Natalie and singer Johnny Mathis for a PBS special on Nat. In 1990 both Maria and Natalie accepted a Grammy lifetime achievement award for her late husband. Over the years, she has contributed to her community through charities including the National Kidney Foundation, the Urban League and the Cardiac Research Foundation. Articulate, dignified and positive, Maria Cole has managed her fame, fate and fortune with aplomb. She now lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
PMI closed in 1971 but since being turned into a state historic site, five former school buildings have been designated as official projects of Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The museum’s mission is to preserve and interpret the history and legacy of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Palmer Memorial Institute and African American education in North Carolina.
It is located in Sedalia on Hwy 70 between Greensboro and Burlington. Groups of 10 or more are encouraged to make reservations in advance. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and admission is free. The site is located at 6136 Burlington Road, Sedalia, 10 miles east of Greensboro off I-85, exit 135. For information about the site, Mrs. Cole’s visit, tours, directions and activities, visit www.chbrownmuseum.nchistoricsites.org or call (336) 449-4846.
Administered by the Division of State Historic Sites, Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum is part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, a state agency dedicated to the promotion and protection of North Carolina’s arts, history, and culture through such programs as “Telling Our Stories” the 2008 Department theme. For more information, visit www.ncculture.com.