Donald Coaxum, a Harlem gem
An in-depth look into the life of one of Harlem’s most successful real estate investors
Few people have inspired me as much as the man I am profiling today. Papa, as he is affectionally known, is a man of many stories, some of which I’ve been grateful to hear over the course of my life. I decided to sit down for an interview with him in late May, with the aim of recording his life story for future generations of our family to cherish and learn from. Since his 86th birthday was approaching, however, I decided to hold off on publishing this piece until today.
This is a short biography of my grandfather, Donald Benjamin Coaxum, Sr.
Donald Benjamin Coaxum, Sr. was born in Harlem, New York on August 27, 1934 to Dr. Cecil G. Marquez, a physician and later, associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Lucille Coaxum, a businesswoman and storeowner.
He was born into a much different Harlem than today, one sandwiched between the roaring Harlem Renaissance era and the onset of the Second World War. According to Mr. Coaxum, it was a place filled with “prejudice” and “discrimination,” but nonetheless, “a place to make money.”
Growing up, his father was rather absent from his life.
Dr. Marquez, a two-time graduate of Howard University, worked at Harlem Hospital as one of the first Black doctors at the facility and went on to teach at Columbia University. Through his career, Marquez garnered a substantial amount of wealth, allowing him to live a jet-setter lifestyle with his new wife, a lifestyle frequently mentioned in the Society sections of Jet Magazine.
Mr. Coaxum’s mother, on the other hand, was his closest confidant and best friend.
Hailing from Charleston, South Carolina, Lucille Coaxum did not receive a full education, but nonetheless, was a very successful businesswoman. She owned and supervised a grocery store on Harlem’s Manhattan Avenue, providing her son with a solid foundation for his future career ventures.
After graduating from Washington Heights’s George Washington High School in 1953, Mr. Coaxum went on to attend Lincoln University, an HBCU near Oxford, Pennsylvania. While at Lincoln, he tried his hand at studying medicine, was on the cheerleading squad, played basketball, soccer, and pledged the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.
However, he withdrew after his sophomore year, realizing that he was not keen on studying medicine and becoming a doctor like his father. He cited his difficulty dealing with his dyslexia as an added reason for leaving.
Now home from Lincoln and working at his mother’s store, Mr. Coaxum was presented with a peculiar, but pivotal question from a regular customer of his that would change his life forever.
“Donald, how would you like to buy a house?”
The customer, desperate to get rid of his brownstone, sought out Mr. Coaxum to see if he’d take the home off his hands.
Despite having never owned a piece of property before, he said yes, purchasing the property for $9000.
Two weeks later, he was approached by a friend who was scouting the market to purchase a house. Mr. Coaxum, now the proud owner of a brownstone, considered selling his newly-bought property to his friend, but wanted to make a profit from his investment.
So, he bumped the asking price of the home to more than double the price he purchased it for, offering the brownstone to his friend for $19,000. However, the friend was short on cash, with only about $10,000 to put down.
Unfortunately, banks in 1950s New York were not lending to Black buyers. So, as an alternative option, Mr. Coaxum held his friend’s mortgage for over 10 years. Realizing that this experience was very profitable, he repeated the process, over and over again.
This was Mr. Coaxum’s awakening into the world of real estate investment.
As he continued to build his portfolio and buy properties throughout the city, the Caribbean, and The Hamptons, one of his most important purchases was the building that still houses his mother’s old corner grocery store, now a deli. The corner brownstone would serve as a home where the youngest four of his six children were raised.
At this point in his life, Mr. Coaxum had not only established a reputation as an instrumental figure in the Harlem real estate market, but also became known as a firm, to-the-point man.
Having to juggle both his career and personal life, Mr. Coaxum was a man who wished to have control and stability for himself and his family. A businessman by trade, he had a stern hand and held his children to high expectations, driven by a desire for them to be successful and happy in their ventures in life.
Outside of the household, Mr. Coaxum was known by many as a powerful, no-nonsense man who few people wanted to brush the wrong way. With his signature baritone voice, his words had the same weight in the negotiation room as they did at the dinner table.
As time passed and his children grew up to start families of their own, Mr. Coaxum continued his investment ventures, notably by taking up options trading. Despite this addition to his career, he continued to be active in the real estate market, seeking out one-of-a-kind properties that he felt were worthy of his time and investment.
One day on his drive home, Mr. Coaxum passed a house for sale on the same street as his current home. Curious to see what the home had to offer, he parked his car, rang the bell, and made his way inside to the garden floor.
To his delight, the owner wanted to sell the home as quickly as possible. Before even seeing the rest of the home, Mr. Coaxum wanted to buy. His eagerness to buy would be heightened by how well preserved the turn-of-the-century brownstone was.
Lured by the elegance and originality of the building, he bought the property, packed his bags from his Manhattan Avenue residence, and moved right into his new home in 1997. To his surprise in the years that followed, Beyoncé, Spike Lee, Puff Daddy, Jill Scott, Solange, and many others would confirm for Mr. Coaxum that this new home was the right choice by them choosing to shoot their projects there.
Like his father, Mr. Coaxum is also a seasoned traveler. While he has traveled the world, citing Brazil, Spain, and Portugal as some of his favorites, his most memorable destination is the Caribbean island of Dominica.
“Dominica is a place that’s 200 years in the past,” he noted.
“When I was there, they had lanterns, no electricity. I’m a lover of old things, that’s why I like this house.”
Is there a place he wishes he had traveled to? Yes, the City of Love.
One of the places Mr. Coaxum has always wanted to see is Paris, especially to see the Louvre.
But, even though he isn’t able to travel much these days, Mr. Coaxum still finds time to fill his days with things he enjoys, such as watching tennis, the news, Formula 1 racing (of which he is a fan of Lewis Hamilton), and of course, listening to music.
While his favorite genre is classical, noting Brahms, Prokofiev, Bach, Gershwin, and Beethoven as his favorites, he is also fond of legendary singers Michael Franks, Anita Baker, and Carly Simon.
Mr. Coaxum is also a avid lover of old films.
His favorite actor? Marlon Brando. Actress? Betty Davis. What about films? Of his many favorites, Casablanca (1942), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The French Connection (1971) are dear to his heart.
However, as much as he loves watching the French Open or watching CNBC during trading hours, he is also dedicated to his family and loves being surrounded by them.
Having not been prioritized by his own father, Mr. Coaxum promised himself he’d be a better man to his children and grandchildren, no matter the situation. On this subject, he recounted a childhood memory that stuck with him his entire life.
“[My father] has a retirement at the Pierre Hotel down on Fifth Avenue, and their honoring him for what he has done to help humanity and such. He bought tickets for me and my mother and sister,” he said.
“We’re in the balcony. His other family’s down below.”
From that moment, Mr. Coaxum vowed to do better by his own, seeing the success and happiness of his family as success and happiness for himself.
Today, at 86, Mr. Coaxum is appreciative of his past and grateful for each day he gets to spend time with his children and grandchildren. And yes, he’s still listening to Prokofiev, watching Casablanca, glaring at CNBC as 4 P.M. approaches, rooting for Lewis Hamilton, and thanking God for each day he gets to do what he loves.