“Winnie Didn’t Lead That Kind of Life…”
Loretta Coleman was born on April 22, 1936 in Louisiana to Frank Harris and Ruth Roberts. Not much is known about Loretta’s parents, but she says that she and her three siblings had a good childhood and that they were raised in a very strict Baptist household. Loretta graduated from high school and was then sent to live with relatives in Chicago, where she got a job as a cook in a cafeteria.
At some point, Loretta was introduced to Roy Coleman, who worked at a meat packing house. They began dating and eventually married. Once she got pregnant with their first child, Leroy, Loretta quit her job at the cafeteria and stayed at home to take care of him. She and Roy had a total of seven children (Leroy, Charles, LaVergne, Franklin, Mattie, Abraham, and Winnie). Loretta says that she and Roy were very close in the early days of their marriage but that as time went on, they drifted apart, especially when he started to stay out late, going to bars and picking up other women. Eventually, they divorced, and Loretta was forced to go back to work as a cook, leaving the children to fend for themselves while she was gone.
While that period in her life was difficult to get through, her biggest tragedy was when her youngest daughter, Winnie, was murdered at age twenty-four. Loretta says that Winnie had had a baby, Marcus, out of wedlock but was estranged from the father, Dean Richards. Winnie apparently led a simple life at home with Loretta, which makes her death all the harder for Loretta to accept, because, she says, “Winnie didn’t lead that kind of life.” Loretta describes Winnie as a quiet, good girl who worked two jobs to support herself and Marcus and who sang in their church choir. She was “a very good person,” Mattie says, and she still cries about Winnie’s death, which occurred just two years ago.
When asked what happened to Winnie, Mattie relates that for some reason, Winnie agreed to meet up with Dean one night and left Marcus, then just one year old, with Loretta for the evening. When Winnie didn’t come home, Loretta called the police, who later found Winnie’s body in a hotel room, where she had been shot to death. The police eventually picked up Dean and held him for a time, but they did not have enough evidence to convict him. In Loretta’s mind, however, he is guilty of murdering her Winnie.
Following Winnie’s death, the care of Marcus fell to Loretta. Though she loved him completely, she did not think she could raise another child, especially with her own health issues, so she decided to give Marcus to her younger sister, Agnes, who was living in California. Loretta says that it almost killed her to give up Marcus, since he was a part of Winnie, but she knew she couldn’t give him what he needed and that it was for the best. After he was gone, Loretta then went through a grieving period for both Winnie and Marcus. She often describes how during those many months, she would wake up happy each day, but then would remember the tragedy all over again and be thrown into a fresh depression and despair. To make matters worse, Loretta’s son, Franklin, who was also living with her at the time of Winnie’s death, began drinking heavily as a way to deal with his grief over his sister’s death and quickly became an alcoholic.
Loretta eventually sought the professional help of a counselor, whom, she says, helped her immensely, as did prayer. She continues to urge Franklin—and all of her other children—to seek help, as well, to aid them in coming to terms with Winnie’s violent death, but she has had varying degrees of success in getting any of them to go.
Loretta says she takes one day at a time. She attempts to go on as best she can and tries to keep Winnie alive by remembering the funny things she did and the good times they had together. She also tries as hard as she can to keep in touch with her grandson, Marcus, so that he will remember his family in Chicago, but it is difficult. Tending to her many plants, decorating, and going to bingo and coffee shops are all things that have helped her to cope these last two years.
Recently, however, Loretta has had to have her toes on her right foot amputated and was thus admitted to a nursing home to recover. Franklin and her daughter, Mattie, visit her frequently. Both are anxious for their mother to come home. Loretta does not open up easily and seems reluctant to share all of her story. She is a very private person and does not interact much with the other residents, who are all significantly older than she. She spends her day doing crossword puzzles, reading the Bible, talking on the phone or watching TV, biding her time until she can return to her home. She is a calm, patient woman, who will answer questions politely, but she tends to direct every conversation back to the topic of her murdered daughter. “Why did this have to happen?” she often asks. “What is the point of it all?”
(Originally written March 1996)
If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago: