A look into the life of a dedicated public servant, veteran, and memory-keeper — and how her impact continues even after her passing.
by Finn Cohen
A town council meeting is an unlikely spot for serendipity, but one night in Southern Pines in 2010, a thread began that would eventually link gospel, punk rock, and civic service. For about four years, Suzanne Coleman had been performing an often-overlooked privilege of democracy — “I’m one of those concerned citizens who attend council meetings,” she says — and was frequently joined by only one other resident: Veola McLean, a woman 18 years her senior. That fateful night, McLean asked Coleman to drive her back to her small house in West Southern Pines. There, Coleman walked into a museum of sorts — one of Black culture.
“She collected art. She collected sculpture. She traveled to Africa and brought back beautiful garments from Senegal; baskets and hand-carved statues in different sizes. She had glass cases filled with dashikis, a whole closet full of African garments,” says Coleman. McLean housed it all in a 20-foot by 30-foot addition built on to her home, plus 21 separate storage units. “You name it, she collected it: artwork, material from Obama’s campaign, memorabilia from Martin Luther King Jr., Reggie Jackson, Jackie Robinson,” says Coleman.
McLean, who died in February 2021 at the age of 89, was a retired Air Force staff sergeant. But she was many other things, too: the first Black woman from Moore County to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces; a lifelong learner who accumulated multiple degrees and supported Black high-school graduates with her own savings; a devoted citizen who belonged to groups like the Moore County NAACP, the Friends of Southern Pines Public Library, and the American Legion. With no children of her own, she became a maternal figure to many who entered her sphere of influence.
“She was like everybody’s grandma, she would come in and see what mothers didn’t see,” says Tessie Taylor, a lifelong friend who worked with McLean on a number of civic organizations. “She had that ability to sense that inner thing that was maybe going on with somebody: What’s going on with you? Why’re you looking like that? Come and talk to me!”
McLean also had more than 5,000 vinyl LPs, a trove of gospel, jazz, blues, soul, and funk — which is where her life intersects with a record store/label in Raleigh perhaps best known for its contribution to the city’s punk circuit. Sorry State Records was opened in 2013 by Daniel Lupton, the guitarist for the band No Love. For the last decade, the store has been a center of gravity for the scene that produced bands like Double Negative, Whatever Brains, and Scarecrow — worlds apart, sonically, from McLean’s vast collection.
Coleman, the executor of McLean’s estate, helped move a number of her collections into storage, but the records were packed into liquor boxes and stacked ceiling-high at her house. She knew someone would want them, and research led her to Sorry State. After talking with Lupton, who also holds a Ph.D. in 18th-century British literature and taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she determined that McLean would want her collection in his hands.
“She would like the fact that he’s an educator, he’s passionate about educating his buyers, and he has a vision — she invested heavily in people, especially young people, who had a vision,” Coleman says. “Investing in Daniel and Sorry State Records would help them achieve their vision to broaden their collections into other genres. And the way he’s treated it has kind of validated my selection.”
Used LPs are the lifeblood of many record stores; collections like McLean’s can be worth thousands of dollars. When Lupton realized a potential treasure was just an hour away, he made the trek — and he purchased all of them.
“The first box I looked through, you could tell the collection had been organized at one time, and it was a box full of M’s: Lee Morgan and Thelonious Monk and Jackie McLean, a bunch of great jazz records,” Lupton says. “She’d amassed this massive collection, and to just break it off and send it off into the world unceremoniously — I just wanted to do something more than that.”
Lupton and his staff decided to honor McLean’s legacy in several ways. The records that were salvageable would be slowly parceled onto the store’s shelves, along with a piece of purple cardstock on each one marking it as part of “The Miss Veola McLean Collection.” A photo of McLean and an excerpt from her obituary are on one side of each card; the other explains that proceeds from the sales of her records go to the Veola McLean Scholarship Fund, which supports Black graduates of Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines as they attend North Carolina colleges and universities. “I was like, there’s probably tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of records here,” Lupton says, adding that one has sold for $800. “And if we sort of break them up and sell them like this, I think we could generate a good chunk of cash for the scholarship fund.” As of late March, Lupton says, sales from McLean’s collection have generated about $8,500 for the fund. Which, as Taylor explains, was perhaps McLean’s most passionate project.
“That was her heart. She believed in education. What she promoted was the education of Black children, particularly females,” Taylor says. “She wanted girls to know that there was more to life than growing up, getting out of school, and going to work for somebody, or getting married and having children.”
McLean was raised in a time and place when segregation in Southern Pines was far more pronounced. That, plus entering the world during the Great Depression, shaped McLean into the “fireball,” as Taylor puts it, that she became. Her mother and grandfather raised her to value education. Even after getting a master’s degree in education from North Carolina State University at the age of 48, “she continued to get certifications and associate’s degrees in various subjects from Sandhills Community College,” Coleman says. “I have a whole box of diplomas from among her personal things.” Her grandfather also instilled the value of prudent personal finance. So she invested early and often, funding yearly scholarships of up to $3,000 per student.
But it’s her collections that may have defined her strongest beliefs. From the evolution of Black American music chronicled through her LPs to the Super Soaker squirt gun (invented by Lonnie Johnson, a Black man from Alabama) to the African garments in her closet, they were not the obsessive catalog of a hoarder. They were tools to educate her community about where they came from — and where they were going. (Coleman notes that some of the artifacts may be displayed at an African-American museum being planned by the Southern Pines Land & Housing Trust.)
“She didn’t hold it for herself, hide it away to collect: she shared it, she set up exhibits at schools and auditoriums wherever she was invited,” Taylor says. “It had an importance to her of who we are as a people and how African Americans actually fit in the fabric of America. We were not always welcome, but still sitting at the table — still a real important piece, undeniable, of the fabric of who America is.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine