Cotter, Joseph S.

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Joseph S. Cotter


Within a brief span of four years, Joseph S. Cotter's poetry influenced future poets by exploring major social, political, religious, and racial issues of the time. Following in his father's footsteps as a poet, he attained a degree of literary merit which led some to rank his work with that of Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson. In sonnet and free verse style, Cotter's works demonstrate his broad talent and versatility.

Cotter's father Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., was born in Bardstown, Kentucky, the son of Michael and Martha (Vaughn) Cotter. He became one of the most influential community leaders of his time. Cotter Sr. was a self-taught educator, poet, and playwright. Cotter Sr.'s mother Martha Vaughn was a slave of mixed Indian, English, and African blood who had a natural talent for storytelling and poetry. Michael Cotter, his father, was a prominent citizen of Louisville who was married to Martha by common law. The young senior Cotter's formal education was very limited, and he was forced to discontinue grammar school education in the third grade in order to help support his mother.

When he was twenty-two, he enrolled in a Louisville night school at the primary level. After just two sessions of formal coursework, he began teaching others. This was to be the beginning of a long career in education. He taught English literature and composition (1885 to 1887), conducted a private school (1887 to 1889), taught at the Western Colored School (1889 to 1893), was founder and principal of Paul L. Dunbar School (1893 to 1911) and in 1911 was the principal of the Coleridge-Taylor School. Like his father before him, he became influential in Louisville, serving on boards and acting as president of several organizations. Cotter married Maria F Cox, a teacher, of Louisville, on July 22, 1891.


Born in Louisville, Kentucky on September 2
Graduates from Louisville Central High School
Enrolls in Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee
Released from school, stricken with tuberculosis
Returns to Louisville, Kentucky
Sister Florence dies of tuberculosis
Publishes The Band of Gideon and Other Lyrics; poems published in AME Zion Quarterly Review
Dies in Louisville, Kentucky on February 3
Out of the Shadows, a sequence of nineteen love poems written in the English sonnet style, posthumously published in AME Zion Quarterly Review
Two pages of poems ranging in form from the traditional Italian sonnet to free verse published posthumously in AME Zion Quarterly Review

Early Years Reflect Father's Influence

Joseph S. Cotter Jr. was born September 2, 1895, in Louisville, Kentucky. Cotter's early years were influenced by his brilliant father's accomplishments as a nationally known poet and his involvement in community, educational, social, and cultural contributions. Being born into an environment of upper middle-class wealth with access to an extensive home library with many books of poetry influenced Cotter's literary development. His older sister, Florence Olivia, taught him how to read when he was quite young. He graduated from Louisville Central High School in 1911 and entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, that same year. At Fisk, he wrote for the Fisk Herald literary magazine. His tenure at Fisk was a brief two years. During his sophomore year, Cotter was stricken with tuberculosis and was forced to leave Fisk University, returning home to Louisville, but not before he had been chosen president of his class.

Upon returning to Louisville, Cotter worked for a brief time serving in an editorial capacity as journalist on the Louisville Leader and the Courier-Journal until his illness restricted him to his home.

Literary Career Begins

Florence, his devoted sister and inspiration, who was also a student at Fisk University, fell ill and died on December 16, 1914, of tuberculosis. Florence's death left Cotter distraught, and he composed "To Florence," in tribute to her. This poem marked the beginning of his brief career as a poet.

A significant childhood friend, Abraham Simpson, later became one of the youngest black officers in World War I. This friendship influenced Cotter's literary work and writing of war poetry. Simpson's friendship also kept him up to date about the controversial conflict that was World War I. Due to his illness Cotter could not serve his country in war, but he was well acquainted with the conflict and its impact upon the African American community. Cotter wrote of the horrors of world war and other devastating events and declares in his poem "O Little David" that blacks suffer like wartime victims. "O Little David" was written in free verse and technically associated with the new poetry of the period. Cotter thus contributed to World War I literature, even through his health was fragile and his lifespan brief.

Though he was given the best medical care possible, Cotter, like his beloved sister Florence, soon succumbed to tuberculosis, a leading cause of death among African Americans at the time. Cotter was to have only a little over four years as a poet; he died February 3, 1919. Within his short lifetime and despite his illness, he established himself as a poet of genuine promise and achievement.

His work is marked by bold diversity and range in techniques and theme. His early experiments with techniques associated with the new American poetry of the period led to some of his finest writing. Cotter's poetry covered a range of forms, writing effectively of nature, religious faith, love, and death and of the disparate racial situation of African Americans in his time.

One of Cotter's most quoted poems, "The Mulatto to His Critics," suggests the style of Walt Whitman in its rhythms and catalogues. Listing his various ethnic heritages, the poet observes: "Through my veins there flows the blood/Of Red Man, Black Man, Briton, Celt and Scot." As the speaker concludes, he asserts that he values his black heritage most. This affirmation recurs throughout The Band of Gideon and Other Lyrics (1918).

Cotter's posthumous publications include two series of poems in the AME Zion Quarterly Review, and the one-act play "On the Fields of France," carried in the Crisis. The surrealistic play presents the relationship between a black Army officer and a white Army officer in France. In this play, the two soldiers consider the damaging effects of racism on America and wonder at the friendship they might have had if racism not been part of their lives. The soldiers then die hand-in-hand.

Cotter received critical recognition in his day as one of the bright rising stars. He produced three volumes of verse: The Band of Gideon and Other Lyrics (1918), Out of the Shadows (1920), and Poems (1921), written in the sonnet and free verse styles. Frequent themes are World War I, racism and racial identity, love, death, and nature.

His significant poems include: "Sonnet to Negro Soldiers"; "The Mulatto to His Critics"; "Is It Because I Am Black?"; "And What Shall You Say?"; "O Little David, Play on Your Harp"; and "Rain Music." His poems were published in AME Zion Quarterly Review (1920–1921) and Crisis (June 1918).



Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 5th ed. New York: Knopf, 1980.

Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bonteps. The Poetry of the Negro, 1946–1970.Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday & Company, 1970.

Nichols, J. L, and William H. Crogman. Progress of a Race. Naperville, Ill.: J. L. Nichols & Company, 1925.

Payne, James R. "Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr." In Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance. Eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1986.


The Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. Papers are housed in the Louisville Free Public Library, Western Branch, in Louisville, Kentucky.

                                     Mattie McHollin